This has been an unusually fertile week for religion news from the Emerald Isle -- including one unexpected ray of hope. Local Catholics celebrated the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's 1979 visit to the Republic of Ireland, apparently the first time that any pope had ever set foot on that very Catholic soil. It may be hard to remember now but the pope used to stay in Rome rather than fly all over the globe. The Irish press was abuzz with will-he-or-won't-he speculation about whether the former bishop of Galway, Eamonn Casey, who fled the country in disgrace in '92 when it was revealed that he had fathered a child with an American woman, would show up to help mark the occasion. On the one hand, he was instrumental in the pontiff's historic visit and it would only seem fitting. On the other, the local hierarchy was concerned enough about Casey's possible return to Erin's soil that, when he tried to relocate from Ecuador in 1998, they forced him to live in England instead, and allowed only occasional visits. From his hospital bed the current bishop of Galway blamed the press for keeping Casey away. To an extent that was true: The local bigs do not want any more bad press out of the whole affair.
After all, they've got bigger things to worry about. The Irish Times reported that Dr. Diarmuid, archbishop of Dublin, warned a conference of priests Wednesday night that "the full dimensions of the clerical abuse scandals, sadly, may yet still have to appear."
Of course, the skeletons that have fallen out of closets so far are pretty ugly. Though the Irish clerical sex scandals may not be as far reaching as the American ones, things have gotten pretty bad: priests committing suicide rather than stand trial, bishops resigning in disgrace when their practices of shuffling the abusive priests around were exposed, and some truly horrific stories have come from the victims.
All of this has happened at a time when the church has been fighting not to lose its grip on the Irish people: Mass attendance is down as is respect for priests, abortion laws have been liberalized, and hate crimes laws have been used to try and muzzle the moral voice of the church.
Depressing, yes, but it's not the whole picture. A report in the Tuesday edition of the Irish News began thus:
The Pope decided to make his historic pilgrimage to Ireland against the recommendation of his advisers.
They feared that, with the north in the grip of the Troubles, the Pope would be a target for loyalist paramilitaries and that his visit would heighten tension between the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland. A month before the pilgrimage was scheduled to start, the Queen's cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, had been killed in an IRA bomb attack on his boat in Co Sligo. Hours later that same day, August 27, 1979, 18 British soldiers were killed in two bombs at Narrow Water Castle near Warrenpoint.
As a result, John Paul II agreed to leave Northern Ireland off the itinerary and security was increased. An estimated half of the Catholics in the north marched south to see the bishop of Rome during his three day visit. At the time, the pope implored, cajoled, and flat out begged for an end to the violence.
And this week, on the 25th anniversary of the pontiff's plea, the most unlikely of things occurred. According to the Guardian, the Rev. Ian Paisley, the hardest of Protestant Unionist hardliners and leader of the largest party in Northern Ireland, Thursday "made an historic journey south of the Northern Ireland border for his first political meeting with an Irish prime minister in Dublin." The purpose of the meeting was to explore the possibility of Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party eventually sharing power with Sinn Fein. For this to occur, of course, the IRA would have to effectively disband.
These tentative steps toward cooperation could lead nowhere, but a letter to the Irish News from one Brian Duffin of Toomebridge captured the crazy new hope best:
It is almost 25 years to the day that my wife and I travelled - together with a quarter of million Irish souls to Drogheda, Co Louth -- to welcome Pope John Paul II to Ireland.
On that amazing day, Saturday September 29, 1979, the Pope appealed to the IRA for an end to violence in Northern Ireland: "On my knees I beg of you to turn away from the paths of violence and to return to the ways of peace".
It seems incredible that it took nearly 15 more years before the IRA heeded his advice.
It is even more incredible that the IRA has now agreed to decommission, not for the Pope, but for Dr Ian Paisley - the man who called the Pope "the anti-Christ" and vowed to destroy the Good Friday Agreement.
[A footnote: There are few links in this story because it seems that every Irish newspaper not only demands that readers register for the privilege of perusing the websites but that they shell out a subscription fee as well, which upset my Irish temper.]