My first comment on the visit of Pope Francis over last weekend is that it was a huge success.
Importantly I am conscious that his two-day intensive pilgrimage wasn’t so much a visit to Ireland, rather the Holy Father came here to attend events associated with the conclusion of the five-day celebration of the World Meeting of Families – an international faith event hosted every three years in a particular city. The tenth World Meeting of Families will be hosted in Rome in 2021.
I am also mindful to keep the universal, i.e. worldwide, aspect of the World Meeting of Families in mind. The opening of the WMOF began on Tuesday last 21 August with a wonderful festival and liturgy celebration taking place in each of the 26 dioceses on the island of Ireland. All dioceses were blessed with good weather for these opening events!
Then followed the three-day Pastoral Congress on the Family which took place in the RDS in Dublin. In terms of people attendance, at about 37,000 people a day, this was the largest ever Congress in the history of the World Meeting of Families. The visit of Pope Francis was the crowning event of the 2018 meeting.
In his message ahead of the World Meeting of Families, Pope Francis expressed the hope that this gathering of families from Ireland and around the world would be a source of renewed encouragement to families everywhere, especially those families present at the meeting. That encouragement was palpable throughout the Congress, but, for me, especially on Thursday where a large gathering of people from Kilmore diocese were present. There was a real sense of family about the occasion and a feeling of positivity and joy about that was a welcome contrast to the negative tone of the much of the commentary preceding it.
Shortly after his arrival on Saturday, the Holy Father met with 370 couples – representing each of the 26 dioceses on the island of Ireland – in Saint Mary’s Pro Cathedral in the Archdiocese of Dublin. These couples were either married this year or engaged to be married; five couples had their new baby with them and one couple was married for 50 years!
Following this meeting, Pope Francis travelled through Dublin city centre in his open ‘pope mobile’ to visit the Capuchin Day Centre to meet with, listen to, speak with, and bless the homeless, the Capuchin clergy and their staff. Later, I very much welcome that Pope Francis spent 90 minutes meeting with survivors of abuse during this the first day of his pastoral visit.
The first big event at which Pope Francis attended was the Festival of Families in Croke Park on Saturday evening. That event embodied for me the whole message of the week and it was a real privilege to have been present there. The Festival put flesh on the 2018 theme of the World Meeting of Families which was, ‘The Gospel of the Family: Joy for the World.’
At the Festival of Families, the sense of joy and exuberance was unbelievable. It was a wonderful occasion and a spectacular show. A variety of families spoke to the capacity audience about their experience of being families inspired by their Catholic faith. These testimonies were interspersed with beautiful music and dance to provide an unforgettable and truly uplifting spiritual experience. Pope Francis’ address engaged with the contributions from the families and combined profound spiritual insights with very down to earth, practical wisdom.
The stormy weather on Sunday, the dark clouds and the sun struggling to shine through, were symbolic of the shadow of abuse hanging over the Church, and not just here in Ireland. Pope Francis’ humility and forthrightness in acknowledging and begging forgiveness for the sins of the past, and in asking forgiveness during his moving Penitential Prayer at the Mass in the Phoenix Park, encourages me to hope that he will introduce the necessary structures of accountability to ensure that child safeguarding will be an integral part of Church life, not just here in Ireland, but throughout the Church across of the world.
I am deeply conscious that such an objective is a huge challenge for the Universal Church. From our experience here in Ireland, we know well that it takes time to effectively establish the kind of robust procedures and practices that are now embedded in our own parishes.
The World Meeting of Families in Ireland, and the associated visit of Pope Francis, have offered us a great opportunity to proclaim and live what the Holy Father calls, “the Gospel of the Family”. The words and actions of the Holy Father challenges each of us to move forward with courage, with hope, with humility, with penitence, with joy, and most especially with love.