DUBLIN – As Pope Francis arrived for the World Meeting of Families in Ireland on Saturday, the upbeat tone of the gathering’s theme, “the Gospel of the Family: Joy for the World,” in many ways seemed in stark contrast to the gloom that has largely overshadowed the event due to a cycle of fresh headlines about the clerical sexual abuse crisis.
Despite vocal critiques over his reaction to the scandals, for families on the ground Saturday night in Dublin there was still a palpable sense of excitement for the Aug. 25-26 visit of the Argentine pope.
Several people who attended the Festival of Families in Dublin’s Croke Park stadium agreed the pope needs to speak out on the abuse scandals and are hopeful that he will take the next step. But they were also vocal about their enthusiasm, viewing the visit as a positive step for the country and for the Church in Ireland.
In comments to Crux, Brian Godfrey, who is attending the Aug. 22-26 World Meeting with his wife Ellen and their three children, Benedict, 19, Marie, 15, and John, 13, said the pope’s visit is “great. It’s great for the country.”
The event, he said, has drawn people out of the “shadows” and has shown that members of all generations are still interested in what the Catholic Church and the pope have to say, despite the heartache the country has experienced over the past decade.
Pointing to the stadium around him, which seats some 82,000 people, Godfrey said the place was sold out for the evening’s festival, complete with performances by singers such as Italian tenor Andrea Boccelli, along with Irish river dancing and skits.
“People say the Catholic Church is dead … I don’t think so,” he said.
Godfrey’s wife, Ellen, said the fact that so many people turned out “has made a statement” about the interest Irish folk still have in the Church. Many people who initially told her they didn’t want to hear about it have been messaging asking for details, she said, adding, “there’s a real big interest.”
For Godfrey, the initial brash attitude their friends had about the visit is because “there have been a lot of misgivings in the Church.” Godfrey said he believes the pope’s visit is a way of trying to heal those wounds.
“There’s probably a bit of silent anger there, and people don’t know how to deal with the feelings,” he said, referring to the sexual abuse crisis. However, he added that when someone gets angry at another person, “it’s probably because you actually care about what they do and what they’re about. And if you’re angry with them, that needs to be resolved.”
The Church, he said, “needs to do that in her own way, and if we believe in the Holy Spirit then let that work as well. I think that’s a step forward.”
History shows that the Church has never had “an easy ride,” he said, but voiced hope that the gathering would offer encouragement for “the quiet believers, the ones who have maybe not been able to step forward.”
Referring to a panel discussion his family attended on safeguarding during the World Meeting, Godfrey said he found it was “quite heartening” to see people who are active in pushing the Church for change, “but right change.”
“I think if people are hearing that message, it might encourage them to start believing,” he said, adding that “the Church can only be changed from within, it can’t change from throwing stones at it from outside.”
Anna Middleton, a volunteer at the World Meeting, told Crux that a lot has changed in Ireland since the last visit of a pope, St. John Paul II in 1979, but “people still have a lot of faith and are searching for something different.”
She said she believes Francis is bringing the message that people are looking for, and voiced hope that the event “will give people a more positive attitude toward the Church.”
Middleton said she understands the criticism Francis has received for what many see as words that fall short of meaningful action on the abuse scandals.
“But I also have hope,” she said, “and I think Pope Francis is somebody who can bring a more positive message. I hope that maybe there will be an openness to that.”
Similarly, Patricia Kilmartin, whose son was among the river dancers who performed for the pope during Saturday night’s festival, said the event was “a great occasion” her family was excited to attend.
“It’s good for the country,” she told Crux, and voiced hope that the pope’s visit, though brief, would “reignite religion in the country.”
Helen McCabe, who came in from Galway with her husband and children for Saturday’s festival, told Crux she is happy the pope decided to hold the World Meeting in Dublin, but believes the Church is out of date and “needs to move on to the 21st century and seeing things as they are, not in a bubble.”
“They need to open their eyes and accept more of what’s really happening,” she said, referring to a recent referendum that legalized abortion in the country. In her view, Francis could be the pope to make these changes, but his “hands are tied” by other people in the Roman curia.
In terms of expectations for the visit, McCabe said her only real hope is that “he says something. There is so much controversy about all the bad things that happened in the Church, so I hope he says something, whatever it is, to recognize it.”
“I don’t think there’s a lot he can say or do right now, but just something to recognize it…sorry is okay,” but more is needed, she said. When asked what that ‘more’ looks like, McCabe said the answer isn’t clear.
“I don’t know what, I don’t know what it is, but I’m hoping…I know he can’t wave a magic wand and change anything, what’s done is done, but I think this is the place. It might only be a one-liner, but he has to come up with it, somebody has to come up with it.”