DUBLIN -- You wouldn’t think that a trip to Ireland, of all places, would be tricky for a famously charming pope.
Traditionally, this is one the most Catholic countries in Christendom. The shamrock itself, Ireland’s national symbol, stems from St. Patrick’s early efforts to teach people the concept of the Holy Trinity.
Catholicism took hold in this country like few others, the bond deepened by years of oppression at the hands of a colonial power that disapproved of the faith so much the British were known to withhold food aid in the midst of a famine unless starving people converted to Protestantism.
Being Catholic in Ireland, “not taking the soup,” was an expression of patriotism.
But times have changed.
The island of saints and scholars is also full of survivors. The sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic church worldwide hit especially hard here, where church-run schools, workhouses and orphanages were notorious havens for abuse.
Some say one in four people of a certain age here are victims of institutional abuse. Every person, every family, knows someone or is related to someone directly affected.
The horrors of abuse in those institutions in Ireland have been thoroughly documented, but the recent report by a Pennsylvania grand jury detailing decades of abuse in that state opened old wounds all over again right as Pope Francis was due to visit.
By coming here, Pope Francis was entering the lion’s den. That was the frame for this papal visit. For Francis, it was nothing less than a pilgrimage of atonement. For the many Irish who have drifted away from the church -- or broken from it altogether -- it was a new rising.
When Pope John Paul II visited Ireland a generation ago, it was a different country. In 1979, homosexuality was illegal here. In 2018, the taoiseach -- the Irish prime minister -- is gay. Over the past few years, Irish voters have overwhelmingly approved same-sex marriage and lifted a constitutional ban on abortion that’s been in place since shortly after Pope John Paul’s visit.
In one of Pope Francis’ first meetings on this trip, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was diplomatic but blunt. Varadkar explained: “This visit marks a new chapter in the relationship between Ireland and the Catholic Church.”
The politician politely told the pope “that marriages do not always work, that women should make their own decisions and that families come in many forms, including those headed by a grandparent, lone parent or same-sex parents or parents who are divorced.”
On the sexual abuse crisis, Varadkar was even more direct. He said, “Above all, Holy Father, I ask you to listen to the victims.”
Pope Francis did listen. And he spoke from the heart, denouncing the abuse of children and the cover-up as “repugnant crimes.” Meeting privately with survivors of institutional abuse, he reportedly used even stronger language to describe church officials who facilitated sexual abuse.
“He stunned us all by referring to them as ‘caca,’” survivor Paul Redmond told the state broadcaster RTÈ. Redmond said, “His translator was taken aback and clarified it, but he literally said they were filth in the toilet.”
But many survivors told us mere words won’t repair the damage done.
“What you need is action,” said Dublin City Councilor Mannix Flynn, a survivor of institutional abuse. “Christ led by example. The apostles are way behind on that. So words are no good. Actions are where it’s at.”
“Can you imagine your house being burglarized and sitting down and thinking you and your wife maybe say a couple of prayers that the guy might leave? It doesn’t work like that. What works is law enforcement. Justice is what works. Truth is what works,” Flynn said.
Another survivor, Michael O’Brien of Clonmel, told me, “We want a day of atonement. A complete day of atonement for what they’ve done to us.”
“Stand up,” he said. “Stand up, Pope Francis, and show us what you can do.”
The anger against the church is so strong, a coalition of protest groups under the banner “Nope to the Pope” booked a block of tickets to Sunday’s papal mass with no intention of showing up.
While more than a million people turned out for Pope John Paul in 1979, the Vatican generously estimated Sunday’s crowd at the same venue to be 300,000, and officials blamed the rain for the poor turnout.
That’s simply not credible. I’ve been to papal masses in Africa and South America where torrential downpours didn’t dampen the turnout. Here in Ireland, they are accustomed to rain. And by afternoon the skies had cleared.
To be sure, there are plenty of Irish who were genuinely excited to see Pope Francis. We met an old fellow named Dermot, fresh off the train from the country (and central casting) in peaked cap and the same suit he wore to see Pope John Paul nearly 40 years ago.
And there was Mary Burke from County Offaly, who told us her children weren’t interested but she felt it was important to be here.
But in Dublin, many counterprotesters gathered Sunday at the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, where Irish nationalists declared independence from Great Britain in the 1916 Easter Rising.
One held up a sign saying “The Church Way Worse than the Brits.”
A bit of Irish humor. But pointed enough.
“The people of Ireland stand with the people of Pennsylvania,” one of the organizers Max Krzyzanowski told me. “We stand with people in every country who have been damaged, traumatized, and killed by this institution.