The much publicised and anticipated visit by Pope Francis to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families took place on 25-26 August 2018. It was the first papal visit to Ireland for almost forty years and, despite all the hype and media interest, it was a pale shadow of 1979. Francis was received with enthusiasm by loyal members of his church, but the numbers at the various events were less than anticipated and the atmosphere much more subdued than it was in 1979. As Martin O’Brien of the “Irish Catholic” said, “It was respectful rather than delirious this time”.
It seems fairly clear that, in many ways, the visit did not quite go according to plan, and we suspect that the pope was probably glad to get away. His two days in Ireland were dominated by the child abuse scandals and cover-ups within his church. Angst about these matters had been building in the weeks leading up to his visit, and despite the best efforts of the RC authorities to alleviate some of the concerns, the issue – and the anger- simply would not go away. The Vatican’s usually slick PR machine was under significant pressure and it did not cope well.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar demanded action on child abuse. At a reception attend by the pope he said, “Wounds are still open and there is much to be done to bring about justice and truth and healing for victims and survivors.. Holy Father, I ask that you use your office and influence to ensure this is done here in Ireland and across the world … We must now ensure that from words flow actions.”
Although the pope met some of the abuse victims who seemed reassured by his response, his words of remorse were dismissed as false and empty by many other victims. When told by the Irish Minister for Children about the scandal of the Tuam mother and baby home where up to 800 babies might have been buried in a mass grave, the Pope seemed to know little or nothing about it. We wonder how that can be.
In 1979, Ireland was still a devoted Roman Catholic state, but in 2018 that is no longer the case. The child abuse scandals have played a big part, and secularism has been advancing on several fronts, as evidenced by the referenda on same sex marriage and, more recently, abortion.
With the advance of secularism comes a decline in religion in general, but while some Roman Catholics say they have lost faith in their church, they also say they have not lost their faith as such. It is our prayer that Roman Catholic people, disillusioned by their church’s moral failings, would also become aware of its spiritual failings.
The focus on the child abuse scandals has meant that the fundamental and deep doctrinal differences between Roman Catholicism and Biblical Protestantism have been pushed into the background. Perhaps they are regarded by many as of no great significance in this modern age, but, for us, they remain the key reasons for our continued opposition to the Pope and his church. As we seek to highlight these, it is vital that we do so in a spirit of humility and compassion. We have nothing to boast of in ourselves, for we are sinners saved by grace, and we must reach out to our Roman Catholic neighbours in love and to proclaim to them the true Gospel message of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone.
The papal events were attended by several Northern Ireland political representatives and Protestant church leaders. Political parties will make their own decisions on these matters, but the DUP came under intense scrutiny and criticism for not accepting the invitation. Various reasons were cited for non-attendance, but ultimately a politician might simply decide not to attend on grounds of conscience. That should be recognised and accepted, and not endlessly queried.
We were more concerned about the attendance by Protestant church leaders who are meant to be committed to the defence of the Protestant faith and the rejection of the errors of Roman Catholicism. When Presbyterian Moderator, Rev Dr Charles McMullen, announced his decision to accept the invitation, he made it clear that he was doing so purely as a gesture of friendship to the Roman Catholic people. In agreeing with Dr McMullen, Presbyterian clerk, Rev Trevor Gribben, emphasised the significant theological differences with Rome. We understand that no act of worship took place at the events in question and, as we have stated above, we feel that it is important for us to reach out to our Roman Catholic fellow-countrymen. However, attendance at papal events gives credence to the Pope’s claims and teachings. We therefore send out mixed signals and our witness to the truths of the Reformed faith is weakened and compromised.
Rev William Davison, President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, attended two events. He said on radio that when he saw the outburst of enthusiasm from Roman Catholics he felt it would be good for the Pope to visit NI, but preferably in the context of the restoration of devolution. Mr Davison has as his theme for his year, “Living with Gospel Focus”. We feel that he would be better to steer clear of politics and, if he has a real desire to build good relationships with his Roman Catholic neighbours, surely he should be focusing on proclaiming the Gospel to them and highlighting how far Rome has departed from that Gospel. We have not heard him make any pronouncements to that effect.
Meanwhile, journalist Alf McCreary said that it was understood that the Catholic Primate of Ireland, Archbishop Eamonn Martin, would introduce the Moderator and other church leaders to the Pope. The leaders were clearly keen for this to happen, and it therefore seems strange that no such meeting actually took place.
If the Pope does come to Northern Ireland – and it is a big “if” which will be dependent on his health, the restoration of devolution and future developments in relation to child abuse – there will be immense pressure on political and church leaders to fully engage with him. Such engagement will be promoted as a further, and vital, building block in the peace process. It will have many advocates in church and state, but we urge all evangelical Protestant leaders to decline any invitation to meet him or attend any papal events.