The itinerary for Pope Francis’s short trip to Ireland is filled with events typical of a papal visit: meetings with politicians, dignitaries and church leaders, homilies and speeches, popemobile tours, and masses. He will address the World Meeting of Families, a triennial gathering of Catholics from more than 100 counties, and visit the huge Marian shrine in Knock.
At Phoenix Park, Francis will celebrate mass with half a million people on Sunday. At the same time, survivors of sexual abuse and their supporters will hold a vigil at Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance. Another vigil will be held at the site of a mass grave containing the remains of infants which was discovered last year at a Catholic mother-and-baby home in Tuam where almost 800 children died.
The Vatican has confirmed that Francis will meet privately with survivors of clerical sexual abuse, although no details of the meeting will be disclosed in advance. It would be up to those invited if they wanted to make public statements afterwards, said Greg Burke, the Vatican spokesperson.
The pope will not be travelling to Northern Ireland, though thousands of Catholics are expected to make the journey south. Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist party and the first minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly before its collapse, declined an invitation to meet Francis, citing a family holiday. Thirty years ago, the Rev Ian Paisley, the DUP’s founder, declared Pope John Paul II the anti-Christ.
Ireland has undergone profound social changes since the last papal visit to Ireland. In 1979, contraception, homosexuality, divorce and abortion were illegal, and more than nine in 10 people attended mass each week. Now those pillars of Catholic teaching have been overturned with the help of successive popular votes, and mass attendance is well below 10 per cent in some Dublin parishes.
Francis’s historic trip will be under the dark shadow of sexual abuse by Irish priests and cover-up by senior church figures, revealed in the past two decades, which Ireland is still struggling to come to terms with. The visit will also put him in a global spotlight, as the Vatican is reeling from scandals this year in the US, Australia and Chile.