Tracy Harkin of Iona Institute NI gives her first hand experience of the World Meeting of Families:
Last week’s World Meeting of Families in Dublin will go down in history as an important milestone for the Irish church. From the ‘pope in Ireland’ signs along the motorway, to the hive of activity around the RDS it was clear that Dublin was a city preparing for something on a very large scale. I was privileged to be there throughout the week reporting every day from Dublin with the EWTN international team, interviewing participants, and providing live coverage of the full papal visit with Father John Paul Mary from the Franciscan missionaries of the eternal word.
The negative reporting by Irish media and the release of the Pennsylvania report in the run up to the week cast a large question mark for many people over just how successful the congress and the papal visit would be. However, from the very first day of the congress it became clear that the media reporting of the event and the actual experience of the thousands of participants and pilgrims were as different as night and day. From the opening ceremonies right across Dublin there was a palpable energy and enthusiasm in the air. A remarkable 38,000 attendees from 116 countries participated in the packed programme of talks, workshops, daily mass, and entertainment over the three days of the congress; all of this included families with children, teenagers, babes in arms mingling with archbishops, cardinals, priests, and religious. This was the universal church at its best. Walking around the RDS exhibition centre the hundreds of booths operated by ordinary Catholics, both ordained and lay, displaying apostolates, evangelization resources, and outreach programmes were all very impressive.
A key question that was asked by many journalists was: how has Ireland changed since the last visit by Pope John Paul II in 1979? As a small child I remember being taken by my parents to Drogheda for this historic visit. A third of the entire country had turned out. The numbers back then were impressive to be sure. The wave of secularism had not yet reached Irish shores, the horror of clerical child abuse was not yet exposed, and the conflict north of the border was still raging. It was however a highly clericalised church wherein the many priests and religious were trusted to get on with ‘God’s work’ and the role of the laity was minimal. As practising Irish Catholics today we may be smaller in number but the level of understanding and engagement in our faith and our desire to evangelise is extraordinary. What was common among many of the attendees I spoke to was the ‘personal encounter’ they had with Christ at some significant time in their lives. Through a pilgrimage, a retreat, a prayer or study group etc, this personal encounter is what led them back to the sacraments of the church, confession, the Eucharist. The enthusiasm of these families for their Catholic faith was impressive.
As Archbishop Eamon Martin said in his keynote speech: ‘The gospel of the family is joy for the church and joy for the world’. This joy was tangible throughout the week and especially so when Pope Francis himself arrived on Irish shores for the very first time. His meeting with civil society including the Irish president and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was cordial but didn’t mask the very real differences between Church and state on the right to life of the unborn and the unique meaning of marriage and conjugal love. Leo Varadkar promised a ‘new era’ in Ireland between church and state saying the Church still has a place. Let’s hold him to that.
The Holy Father’s visit to the homeless centre in Dublin run by Capuchin brothers was very moving. He commended the brothers and the many volunteers for ‘helping without asking questions’. The festival of families in Croke park was a highlight for many, with the entertainment impressive and the testimonies of families very moving. Who can forget the three simple words the pope invited the 70,000 strong crowd to repeat three times ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’. Who would have also guessed than some 300,000 people would walk 3 km in the pouring rain to Phoenix park for the final mass on Sunday despite all the negative predictions. Pope Francis was applauded enthusiastically by the pilgrims when at the beginning of the mass he begged forgiveness for the pain caused in Ireland by clerical, religious, and institutional abuse and called for acts of public penance.
Overall Dublin has seen nothing like this week since the visit of pope Saint John Paul II. It was an incredibly successful, joyful, and grace filled week for the Irish faithful. Personally, my favourite moment was seeing Pope Francis pray in the beautiful apparition chapel in Knock shrine Co. Mayo where some 40, 000 people came to greet him. Seeing the depiction of that meek little lamb victorious on the altar while angels ascend and descend should give us all hope that the future of our Church no matter how fragile it may seem is, ultimately, always in God’s hands.