The Ireland Pope Francis arrives in this morning is very different to that visited by Pope John Paul in 1979. Dublin too is very different to the city where Fr Jorge Bergoglio SJ spent three months in 1980 learning English at the Jesuit's Milltown Institute in Ranelagh.
Even then Fr Jorge was probably amazed at how Catholic Ireland was. Weekly Mass attendance, at 87 per cent, was higher than anywhere else in the Catholic world. There was no divorce and no legal abortion, and momentum was growing for an addition to the Constitution recognising the equal right to life of the unborn, as happened three years later in 1983.
Homosexuality was illegal and contraceptives in 1980 were available on prescription only, and just to married couples from those pharmacies whose owners did not have conscientious objections to stocking them.
Fr Jorge would not recognise the Ireland Pope Francis is visiting today. Ireland in its laws and practices is far less Catholic now, with weekly Mass attendance levels approaching those of secular European countries and its priesthood, nuns, and religious generally, dying out.
Irish Catholics today are also far more independent-minded than in 1979/80. An Irish Catholic is no longer the passive, obedient recipient of belief and direction from clergy. That was made clear again last May when over 66 per cent of Irish people, most of them Catholic, voted to remove the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution so allowing abortion. It was as stark an illustration of the Church’s diminished influence.
This has been in part a response to the tsunami of clerical abuse scandals which have swept across Ireland this past 25 years, going back to initial reports about Fr Brendan Smyth in 1993. But it is also a consequence of a questioning population where 42 per cent of people have third-level education.
Yet 78.3 per cent of Irish people ticked the Roman Catholic box in the April 2016 census. More recently, one month after the May referendum, on June 25th last all 45,000 tickets for tomorrow's papal Angelus at Knock were booked out within four hours, while by 5pm that evening over half of the 500,000 tickets available for tomorrow's Phoenix Park Mass were gone. The remainder was booked in a matter of days.
Asked to explain this phenomenon of high demand for papal event tickets, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin responded with two words: “Pope Francis”. This Pope’s warmth, compassion, sincerity and spontaneous nature appeal to people way beyond his Church.
This weekend, the country will listen to what he has to say. It will do so respectfully, but with a healthier sense of perspective than it showed three decades ago.