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“We need a respectful, mutual listening, free of ideology and predetermined agendas.” Pope Francis, Let us Dream, December 2020

Fr Eugene O’Hagan: Pope Francis ‘listened…learned’ and ‘brought light and hope’

Fr Eugene O’Hagan, of The Priests, recounts the World Meeting of Families and last week’s papal visit to Ireland.

On Tuesday 21st August people all over Ireland gathered in either their local church or diocesan Cathedral to mark and pray for all those taking part in the World Meeting of Families in Dublin. The papal visit was preceded by a Congress held over three days at the Royal Dublin Society showground in Ballsbridge. We attended the second day of the Congress at which Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who delivered the keynote speech in the afternoon, spoke about his ten steps to marriage preparation. The last step was the preparation of the wedding liturgy which he described as the ongoing liturgy of marriage which couples celebrate everyday of their married life. There was plenty of food for thought for both the couples preparing for marriage and those, including clergy, who are involved in delivering marriage preparation courses and advice. On that same Thursday afternoon we also shared our experience of the day and our hopes for the Congress and World Meeting of Families with a BBC TV crew from Songs of Praise before heading to Croke Park for a short preliminary music rehearsal with the Festival of Families’ music director, David Brophy.

Friday morning came and, as they say in the business, it was a case of “hurry up and wait” as all performers involved in the Festival of Families celebration gathered in various dressing rooms of Croke Park to be called to the stage for sound checks and a run through material. It turned out to be a very long day and a chilly one as the prevailing westerly wind brought with it isolated downpours of rain and hailstones which flooded the stage making it a “no go area” for the Riverdance team for at least an hour. With a dry stage for us to rehearse we began a full run dress rehearsal which was interrupted by an electrical failure for about ten minutes. Shortly after that we were up and running and, as happens with dress rehearsals, staggered through the sequence of acts before reaching the finale which, thankfully, the director decided to postpone to the following morning. Everyone returned to their respective lodgings tired but confident that the celebration on the actual evening of the World Meeting of Families, in the presence of the Holy Father, showed every sign of being a wonderful and memorable evening.

Pope Francis’ Alitalia flight touched down at Dublin airport on schedule on Saturday morning. The Holy Father had, by now, flown in to something of a media storm about clerical sex abuse within the Church and a growing and deafening critique of Catholic Bishops’ mismanagement and/or cover up of abuse. This storm had been brewing since the revelations contained in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report and the Cardinal McCarrick debacle had been revealed in the days and weeks before the Holy Father’s arrival. For a short time the focus was on the pope’s arrival and journey to Aras an Uachtarain, the President of Ireland’s official state residence in Phoenix Park, to meet President Michael Higgins and his wife. The welcome was patently warm and friendly as too was the later official welcome by the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Mr Leo Varadkar, on behalf of the Irish Government at Dublin Castle. The Holy Father looked a little uncomfortable as he sat waiting for Mr Varadkar’s welcome speech in which he extolled the contribution of the Catholic Church to Irish civic society but, equally, severely criticised it for its hand in the systemic abuse of children in some of its Institutions and by individual clerics and religious. The abuse scandal in the Catholic Church worldwide and not just in Ireland, bishops’ cover up and the call for action became the dominant theme during the pope’s visit which risked eclipsing the primary reason for his pastoral visit, namely, the World Meeting of Families.

The needs of the victims and survivors of sexual abuse demanded attention and Pope Francis gave generously of his time and his listening ear to the criticisms and current needs of victims and survivors at a 90 minute meeting with representatives of institutional and personal abuse. With reciprocal generosity those representatives acknowledged the pope’s concern and horror at hearing some of the details of the abuse they had suffered. Although all those gathered at Croke Park for the Festival of Families did not know it at the time the pope arrived at the GAA Stadium immediately after his meeting with victims and survivors and he entered the stadium to rapturous applause and to our pride. Here was the successor of St Peter coming to meet families from Ireland and all over the world and to celebrate with them all that is good and wholesome about a family life rooted in faith and in Christ. It was a joyous moment. By the time Pope Francis arrived we had already performed our piece, Deus Meus Aduiva Me, words from the pen of an 11th century Irish monk sung to a traditional Irish melody into which David Brophy, the master musical director, had inserted themes from traditional Eucharistic devotional hymns; the Tantum Ergo, He is Lord and Ag Criost an Siol. The Festival of Families celebration was a visual and acoustic experience without parallel. Certainly one of the most slick and seamless productions in which we have ever taken part. After various testimonies from families representing Iraq, the Irish travelling communities, India and elsewhere the concert celebration reached its crescendo with scripted and unscripted words from Pope Francis himself encouraging families and the family of families, the Church, to heed the words and example of Jesus in our daily lives and in the ordinary routine challenges we all encounter.

The pope’s short visit to the Marian shrine at Knock and the penitential act of forgiveness at the Mass in Phoenix Park the following morning, in his native language, struck a chord with everyone. His humanity, his sincerity and his honesty in asking God’s forgiveness for the shortcomings of the Church, its bishops, its clergy, religious and lay faithful was both unprecedented and heart-warming. A visibly tired Holy Father ended the celebration of Mass, met the Irish bishops for a short time and then headed to Dublin airport to fly back to Rome and into yet another, perhaps more turbulent media storm surrounding the accusatory testimony of a former Nuncio to USA, Archbishop Vignano.

Where does this all leave us who either attended or watched the events at the Congress and World Meeting of Families last weekend? Despite the darkness and scars of sexual abuse and alleged cover up by Catholic bishops which Ireland and other countries continue to experience, the Holy Father brought light and hope. He listened, he learned, he took on board the pain of the victims and survivors of abuse, he did not skirt the issue. He promised action and a response. He also encouraged and affirmed us in faith and in the practice of the faith which, in these critical times, must ensure the protection and safety of the youngest member of every family in our parishes and communities where faith and trust in God is to be experienced, found and celebrated.

Read a further comment piece by Fr Martin O’Hagan of The Priests in next week’s edition of The Catholic Universe, available on Friday 7th September.

Picture: Pope Francis attends the closing Mass at the World Meeting of Families at Phoenix Park in Dublin, as part of his visit to Ireland. (Danny Lawson/PA).