Patrick Murphy: Pope's visit will do little to tackle challenges facing Church

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy is an Irish News columnist and former director of Belfast Institute for Further and Higher Education.

Pope Francis will visit Ireland in 2018 it has been confirmed and it is expected he will head north as part of the trip. Picture by Alessandra Tarantino, Associated Press
Pope Francis will visit Ireland in 2018 it has been confirmed and it is expected he will head north as part of the trip. Picture by Alessandra Tarantino, Associated Press

BAD news for some Protestant graffiti artists: they may soon have to replace the traditional "No Pope here" with "Pope here - but not for very long".

Yes, the Pope is coming to Ireland. Northern nationalists are celebrating their prediction that he will come north, which suggests that they do not see the north as part of Ireland. (It's a bit like the way they used to complain about the British army occasionally crossing the border. It implied that the army had a right to be in the north.)

So, apart from re-writing some slogans, what will a papal visit mean for Ireland, north and south? The answer is that its legacy will probably be more political than religious.

While the Pope's visit is part of a worthy programme of renewing family pastoral care, his visit has a significant political dimension. Five years ago, Enda Kenny and the Dáil accused the Vatican of obstructing investigations into sexual abuse by priests, following publication of a damning report on Cloyne diocese. Ireland and the Vatican later withdrew their respective ambassadors.

Having welcomed Kenny to the Vatican this week, the Pope is visiting Ireland to mend diplomatic fences. But while diplomacy will address the Vatican's concerns, it will do little to tackle the two main challenges facing the Irish Church.

The first is that many of the faithful and former faithful no longer have the same trust or belief in the organisation following its handling of the child sex abuse scandal. Secondly, in a period of all-island austerity and associated deprivation, the Church has rendered itself increasingly irrelevant, by offering neither explanation nor solution to the growing imbalance of wealth.

Individual priests, such as Fr Peter McVerry and organisations like St Vincent de Paul directly tackle social and economic problems. But, many see the corporate Irish Church, as an organisation too removed from real world issues.

An RTE poll in March suggested that 35 per cent of southern Catholics attend weekly Mass. In Dublin it is only 17 per cent. While Mass attendance is only one measure of trust and relevance, it indicates the changed role of the Church in society since the last papal visit in 1979. Then weekly Mass attendance was over 80 per cent.

Almost three million people turned out for John Paul II, but many soon drifted from a Church which frittered away papal popularity through organisational apathy and, in some cases, arrogance.

Pope Francis is presumably coming to lay to rest the child sex abuse scandal. It is unlikely to be enough to turn the tide in what is often called post-Catholic Ireland (although we still do conscience, angst and guilt very well).

Thousands of southern families are now torn apart by poverty and drugs, victims of criminal gangs which operate freely in the light of Garda redundancies - introduced so that public money could be used to fund German banks. The Church offers prayers for political leaders at Mass and wonders why so few come to hear them.

Many individual priests toil tirelessly to address the shattered social fabric in their parishes, but the political solution to these problems lie at a much higher level.

If the Pope's visit to the south is largely diplomatic, his trek northwards will be mainly political. In praising peace, he will presumably give his blessing (not literally) to Stormont and, by implication, the border.

For the first time since its establishment, the state of Northern Ireland may well receive the Catholic Church's imprimatur. Everyone will cheer, media commentators will talk of a new beginning for Irish history and the British government will smile quietly to itself.

When the cheering and flag-waving ends and soccer or snooker replaces the Pope on television, there will still be the same lack of moral authority in Irish society, north and south. Many would argue that we are better off without the authoritarian teachings of a conservative church. They have a point, but that moral authority now rests with a new secular church called the market.

With the exception of the emerging left in Ireland (which a Christian church might be expected to support), all Irish politicians now worship at the market's altar. Ireland has moved from believing in salvation in the next life to preaching the gospel of greed in this one.

When the Pope has gone, nothing will have changed for families in poverty, the homeless, people at food banks or the sick on hospital trolleys. At that point, Catholics here might reasonably take up their spray paint cans and scrawl, more as a regret than a request, "No Church here".