Pope's visit

Pope Francis visit: Catholic Church no longer holds central place in Irish life

The last papal trip to Ireland left millions of people with cherished memories but what sort of impact is Pope Francis's visit likely to have this week? Suzanne McGonagle reports

Pope John Paul II in Dublin during his visit to Ireland in September 1979. Picture by Pacemaker

POPE John Paul II's visit to Ireland in 1979 was an event of such significance that more than half the island's population saw him over three days in Dublin, Drogheda, Galway and Limerick.

But fast forward almost 40 years and it is a very different Ireland that Pope Francis will find.

The numbers expected to travel to see the pontiff will be significantly lower and he will address a society much changed in the intervening decades.

Pope Francis arrives at a time when the Republic's electorate has recently voted to legalise same-sex marriage and remove a constitutional ban on abortion.

 Pope Francis is to visit the Republic this weekend

The Catholic Church no longer holds the central place in Irish life it once did, having been heavily impacted by a deluge of clerical abuse scandals.

Four decades ago, Sunday Mass was a regular feature of life for most people, with 93 per cent of the south's population identifying as Catholic. That proportion has now fallen to 78 per cent.

Many churches, particularly in urban areas, struggle to fill their pews today and vocations have plummeted over the last 40 years.


In 1979, St Patrick's College Maynooth was home to more than 300 trainee priests. Currently, there are just 35 seminarians.

An estimated 2.7 million people greeted John Paul II during his visit in late September and early October 1979.

Michael Kelly, editor of the Irish Catholic

Around 1.25m turned up to hear the pontiff celebrate Mass in the Phoenix Park alone, while many northern Catholics were among the 250,000 people who heard the pontiff give an impassioned address in Drogheda.

This time around 500,000 will see Pope Francis at Sunday's ticket-only event at Phoenix Park.

Michael Kelly, editor of the Irish Catholic newspaper, said the country has "changed dramatically since the last papal visit, particularly the relationship with the Catholic Church".

"Things are very different today, the Church has obviously faced the clerical sex abuse scandal and that has changed the relationship many people have with the Church.

"The visit in 1979 was the first ever visit of a pope to Ireland so it was particularly momentous and you have to remember Pope John Paul II was a young pope, he was only 58 so he was filled with boundless energy as well.

"But I think you have to also see it in terms of our wider culture. Nowadays people have more things to be able to do, in 1979 there was only one television channel.

"Also this time, tickets were limited for the papal Mass to half a million as health and safety comes into play, so all those factors have to be taken on board."

The streets of Belfast during the Pope's visit in 1979. Picture by Pacemaker

And Mr Kelly said while there has been negativity ahead of the trip, he believes people will "get behind his visit".

"In any papal visits I have covered in the past, there has always been a bit of negativity ahead of the visit," he said.

"Ahead of Francis' visit, there's obviously been the clerical sex abuse and Pennsylvania scandals.

"I covered a visit of Pope Benedict to Britain when there was much negativity at the time, but when he arrived, it was almost like something special happened.

"My experience is that when the pope arrives, people quickly get behind his visit and I would expect the same to happen this time also."

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Pope's visit

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