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If I asked you to imagine the nice side of the Catholic Ireland that is waiting for Pope Francis, you just might summon up a picture of a sweet nine-year-old girl in a voluminous, blindingly white First Holy Communion dress and with that special solemnity that children alone can project. Her arms in lace-wrapped sleeves hold a frilly white umbrella, tilted at just the right angle to allow the sun to illuminate her twinkly tiara. Behind her is a pale statute of the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ, in her most beautiful, almost pantheistic, role as Queen of the May: fresh purple flowers – buddleia, most likely – cradled in her arms, daffodils and snowdrops bursting out in their yellow and white glory towards her feet.
Even if you are an ex-Catholic or were never a Catholic at all, even if you have very mixed feelings about the visit of Pope Francis, you would surely find something pleasantly sentimental and touchingly innocent in this image. The femininity it celebrates may be old fashioned – the demure child, the paradoxical virgin mother who is also an icon of springtime fertility – but it is not brash, or vulgar or sexualised.