Francis reminds Ireland of the power of love

From the moment that Pope Francis stepped from his plane at Dublin Airport on Saturday morning, it was clear that, despite the status associated with his office, he was a figure of humility who was apprehensive about the tasks ahead.

However, as the scale and the warmth of the welcome awaiting him across the city and beyond emerged, he visibly relaxed and quietly began setting out his key points to all the people of Ireland.

Almost four decades ago, the charismatic John Paul II strode confidently around all his historic Irish engagements in what was by common consent a very different country and society.

Francis took a markedly lower key and more cautious approach, but stressed throughout that he was here to listen and still managed to get across his position in a measured and effective way.

He spoke out repeatedly and directly, as was absolutely necessary, on the previous failure of the Catholic authorities to properly address the `grave scandal' of clerical sex abuse over a prolonged period with such disastrous consequences.

Reading from a handwritten note at the mass in the Phoenix Park, Francis specifically asked for forgiveness for the sins of the church, its clerics, and the hierarchy who failed to observe their responsibilities.

Some campaigners felt he should have gone even further but it will be noted that on Saturday he spent 90 minutes taking on board the personal testimonies of victims from both sides of the border during a private audience.

His commitment to the marginalised was also demonstrated when he travelled to meet members of the homeless community at the Capuchin Centre in inner city Dublin.

The huge gatherings at Croke Park on Saturday and both Knock Shrine and the Phoenix Park on Sunday were particularly impressive celebrations of faith in all its many forms.

Francis also took the opportunity to express the hope that the Irish peace process would overcome every remaining obstacle, although it will still be widely felt that he could have made a further significant contribution to this cause by travelling even briefly to Ireland's ecclesiastical capital in Armagh.

Sadly, the failure of the DUP to nominate even a single representative to attend one of the weekend events was a stark reminder of the attitudes which led to the continuing suspension of our Stormont institutions.

As he returned to Rome last night after the closing ceremony of the World Meeting of Families, Francis may well have reflected on the changes which have swept across Ireland since the previous Papal visit in 1979.

He would also have been entitled to conclude that some principles remain firmly in place and he deserves our gratitude for reminding us so trenchantly that the power of love is still at the heart of the Christian message.