The visit of Pope Francis was an important moment for Catholics in Ireland, many of whom feel beleaguered because of abuse scandals within the church and hostility from outside it.
The pope’s sincerity and humility shone through in all of his public engagements. These qualities enabled him to reassure believers in the value of their faith, while impressing many non believers.
It was vitally important that the pope acknowledged the colossal failures of the church – and particularly its betrayal of the young and the vulnerable. His plea for forgiveness and his meeting with victims showed his awareness of the damage and hurt inflicted by abuse and the failure of those in authority in the church to deal with it.
While Pope Francis appears sincere in his appeal for forgiveness, nothing can repair the damage done and words are, in themselves, not enough. The church will have to demonstrate that it is truly serious about rooting out abuse and tackling the culture that allowed it to develop. That will include new investigations, redress and handing over documents.
This must be done for the victims, but also for all the practising Catholics in Ireland and across the world who feel betrayed by the church they cherish. The Catholic Church can have no credibility without this happening and it is the defining test of Francis's papacy.
In an increasingly secular age, the church also faces indifference and even sometimes hostility. Against this backdrop, the pope’s emphasis on the overriding importance of love as the value that underpins family and society was apposite. So too was his emphasis on the importance of forgiveness at all levels of human relations.
It was appropriate that in his speech of welcome to Pope Francis, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar acknowledged the contribution the Catholic Church has made to this country, from the movement that led to independence, to the provision of health and education in a State which did not have the resources to provide them. He made the point that the Catholic Church has helped Irish people to understand that they were citizens of a wider world and part of a global family.
The Taoiseach didn’t shirk the dark aspects of the Catholic Church’s history, pointing out firmly that in place of Christian charity, forgiveness and compassion, far too often there had been judgment, severity and cruelty, in particular, towards women and children and those on the margins.
Saying the time had come to build a new framework between church and State, Varadkar captured the mood of many by expressing the hope the visit of Pope Francis would mark the opening of a new and more normal chapter in the relationship between Ireland and the Catholic Church.