Bookmarking the pope’s visit

August 3, 2010

This improvised bookmark was left in a second-hand paperback I picked up recently. It’s a Córas Iompair Éireann (CIÉ) rail ticket to see Pope John Paul II on his visit to the Phoenix Park in Dublin in autumn 1979.

Whoever owned the ticket probably kept it as a memento of what became a milestone in modern Irish history — in some ways a turning point in our sense of ourselves. More than half of Ireland’s population attended a papal appearance during the historic three-day tour; it’s estimated that over a third went to see the pope in the Phoenix Park. Some places, such as Knock, came to a temporary standstill.

Such reverence is unimaginable today for many reasons. One stands out. A great many children in the care of the Catholic church were not exactly given return tickets to the park. Systematic abuse, its subsequent denial, and the reneging of responsibility, accountability, and basic humanity, revealed to the previously unaware a deep dark void where the moral centre of the institution ought to be.

Ireland’s complex relationship with the church is, for better and worse, part of our cultural and psychological heritage. In the midst of evil acts perpetrated by the powerful on the vulnerable, silence was ever complicit. Ours is a nation famed for its talkativeness, but we have a lesser known talent for leaving things unsaid. The pope’s last words before boarding at Shannon Airport were: “Ireland — semper fidelis, always faithful.” I think that was part of the problem.