In Dublin for the papal visit, observers including Martin O’Brien and Cherie Blair and people in the street speak to BEN LOWRY about their impressions of Pope Francis and his visit:
The public response to Pope Francis in Dublin was more restrained on this visit than it was for Pope John Paul II in 1979, one of Northern Ireland’s leading Catholic commentators has said.
Martin O’Brien, who contributes to the Irish Catholic and other publications, was at both papal visits.
Speaking to the News Letter on Dame Street on Saturday, just after Pope Francis passed by in his Popemobile to cheering crowds, Mr O’Brien said: “It was respectful rather than delirious this time.”
In 1979 he saw the then Pope in Dublin and in Knock, in the west of Ireland. “I remember in Dublin John Paull II had made his famous speech in Drogheda, and we had an excellent view as he came down O’Connell Street and there were tens of thousands of people, now there are tens of thousands of people today, but I would say the mood would be different.”
Pope Francis’s visit has happened amid a declining Catholic church in Ireland and controversy over sex abuse.
Even so, said Mr O’Brien, his visit was for many people a “chance in a lifetime to see one of the most important figures in the world and a person who is widely considered to be the foremost voice of conscience in the world today.
“You don’t have to be a Catholic or a Protestant or indeed any believer to recognise that Francis is a figure who speaks to so many issues that are relevant to the world today and is a prophetic voice when you look at what he has said about the environment, what he is saying about poverty.”
“You don’t have to be a Catholic or a Protestant or indeed any believer to recognise that Francis is a figure who speaks to so many issues that are relevant to the world today and is a prophetic voice when you look at what he has said about the environment, in his encyclical Laudato si, when you see what he is saying about poverty, his addresses to G8 leaders.
“He has pricked the conscience of the world.”
Tony Blair’s wife Cherie, whose grandmother was Irish Catholic, was in Dublin with the BBC to see the Pope. It had been, she said, “exciting so far”, adding that the public had responded with “excitement and kindness” to him.
Asked if she had always been a believer, the wife of the former prime minister said: “Yes.” But she did not remember the Pope’s 1979 Irish visit.
Also in Dublin on Saturday was the SDLP Ballymena councillor, Declan O’Loan.
He said he was “very impressed” with the Leo Varadkar’s speech, which criticised the church over clerical sexual abuse, because he thought it “presented a much more balanced and nuanced view of the church as it is currently and particularly as it has been in its history, in its contribution to Ireland and to the broader world”.
Mr O’Loan, 67, had been at Phoenix Park in Dublin to see Pope John Paul II in 1979 with his wife, Dame Nuala.
Speaking about the contrast between that visit and this one, he said: “I suppose because it is the second visit by a pope that by itself it’s not as historic, and papal visits then were very rare anywhere.
“Papal trips had only just started in 1979, so we are now used to the idea of popes travelling for a start, but then obviously Irish society has changed out of all recognition in those times.”
He had, he said, never wavered in his own belief in the teachings of the church, but asked if the wider loss of faith in Ireland alarmed him, Mr O’Loan said: “Absolutely it does, and I think that when we look back on it we realise that the faith as strong as we thought it was at the time.
“It was numerically very strong but the roots maybe weren’t as strong as we thought.
“Obviously as a believer, as a Christian I think there is a message there of ultimate birth and I want people to see past the wrong things that undoubtedly have been done and recognise the real message that is there, that was there in the church at that time in past history, and is very much there and very visible in the character of the present pope.”
On Saturday as Pope Francis travelled through Dublin city centre on his Popemobile, waving to thousands of well-wishers, a Muslim couple from Albania were among the crowds on College Green.
“The Pope came one time in Albania but I lived in France,” said Linda Memia, 18, with Grlino Zhana, 21. “I was happy to see him, like he’s a good person.”
Albania, which is 60% Muslim and 10% Catholic, is “not racist”, she added. “Muslim and Catholics are the same. If you want to marry a Catholic it is fine.”
Breda Moran, Ann Reid and Maureen Lambert from Dublin were holding a banner written in Italian, which if translated said: ‘The head of the Catholic church in the world Pope Fancis we welcome you to Ireland.’
They had seen Pope John Paul II in Ireland in 1979.
“The Pope stands for the Roman Catholic church throughout the world,” said Maureen. “And the family,” said Breda. “He is here for family life.”
Also in the crowd were Vincent Ruttledge, 70, and his wife, Marian, 64, who said that terrible things had happened in the church such as sex abuse, but they had never lost their faith. “We are sorry to see the decline of the church,” she said.