This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
The general consensus about the Pope seems to be: he's pretty woke. Francis doesn't care for Trump, he auctioned his famous Harley Davidson to feed the poor, and says that preventing environmental catastrophe is a moral imperative. He belongs to the fair-minded Jesuits, and has made some progressive-sounding comments about women and the LGBTQ community.
Although no changes to Catholic teaching regarding women or sexual minorities have been made, with the assistance of a very well-oiled PR machine, the Pontiff has nonetheless become a kind of media-darling, referenced as a benign moral authority, Dalai Llama-like, by ostensibly secular liberals. "On the issue of climate change, I agree with Pope Francis," Senator Bernie Sanders would regularly say, during rallies throughout his presidential campaign.
From the moment we met him, the current Pope's PR campaign has been in full swing: Francis stepped out into the world wearing humble white garments, a simple cross draped around his neck—the antithesis of the ostentatious papal regalia worn by Benedict XVI. The church was sending a message: Over are the days of opulence and intransigence at the Holy See; enter the era of Francis, and a new, more open Catholicism. In the past five years, this down-to-earth ethos has substantially improved Rome's image.
Next month, on August 25, His Holiness will visit Ireland, a place where the church could definitely use a PR boost. Irish Roman Catholicism is in a state of collapse: A seemingly-unending list of reports chronicling the cover-up of widespread abuse in church-run institutions has lapsed much of the country's faith, while mass attendance continues to plummet and almost no new priests are being ordained. Earlier this year, Irish voters overwhelmingly opted to legislate for abortion by popular vote.
Francis is the first Pope to visit Ireland since 1979, and will have a very full itinerary during his 36-hour stay. He'll be greeted by President Michael D. Higgins, attend the World Meeting of Families, say mass in Dublin's Phoenix Park, visit a prison, and meet with the homeless. But unlike Pope John Paul II's trip—which saw the country come to a standstill, as though God himself had said, "Young people of Ireland, I love you"—Francis will be greeted by a number of protests over past abuses carried out by the church.
Online, the Facebook event "Say Nope to the Pope" has encouraged thousands of people to bulk-book tickets to Francis's mass in the Phoenix Park, with the intention of not showing up and leaving the event vacant. This has sparked public debate with regard to what constitutes an acceptable form of protest, and the action was called "petty" and "mean-spirited" by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, whose government have spent €5 million [$5.9 million] alone on police for the occasion.
Symbolically, an empty park would mean a lot—says organizers of the protest, Stewart Michael and Lisa Bee, pseudonymously, via email. "Mean-spirited?… How can you condemn a victim for block booking 800 tickets to commemorate the babies' bodies, murdered and discarded in a septic tank in Tuam?" they ask, referring to an uncovered mass grave in a former church-run maternity home in Galway, in 2014, the discovery of which shocked the country.
"The church has not apologized, nor taken action toward their crimes by doing right by and supporting and paying their Irish victims," they continue. "We find it surprising and ethically wrong… as their organization is one of the wealthiest religions in the world."
The pair say they would prefer not to be formally identified because they have received a number of threats.
Outside of the planned protests, a number prominent practicing Catholics are currently trying to foster change within churches in Ireland. Famously, former President Mary McAleese has been a vocal critic of certain teachings, calling for female priests and a change to the Catholic stance on homosexuality.
"The church is more divided now than any time in my life," Father Tony Flannery, co-founder of the Association of Catholic Priests, an independent body for members of the clergy, tells me. "You have a real division between the liberal and conservative Catholics—it's desperately damaging to the church… Francis is trying to navigate that."
Father Flannery explains that the division in Rome stems from a dispute over the Second Vatican Council, which sought to open up Catholicism, giving the laity a louder voice regarding church matters. "Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were less than enthusiastic about the Council, and had made efforts to restore a more traditional church," Flannery says. "Francis, however, shares no such ambition—he's trying to implement the teachings of Vatican II. He should be welcome here."
Clodagh Malone, of the Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors (CMABS), is not convinced that Pope Francis is an agent of change. In 1970, she was born in St. Patrick's Mother and Baby home for "fallen" women, then unceremoniously taken from her mother and put up for adoption. Like thousands of other Irish children adopted from Catholic-run homes, Clodagh spent years wondering who her parents were, as few records were kept. Eventually, she found her mother at age 18.
If the group, which has around 3,000 members, are not granted an audience with Francis, they intend to protest outside the Phoenix Park. "We just want an apology—we didn't do anything wrong," she tells me over the phone. "I think that the Pope is afraid to meet us. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has said that he will let us know if it's possible to meet Francis when the date is closer, but I think they're trying to stop us form organizing."
CMABS has previously been involved in direct action, picketing outside the Dáil over dissatisfaction with past inquiries into abuse in church-run homes and schools.
The cruelty that has unfolded on the US/Mexican border, in which no mechanism is in place to reunite families being arbitrarily separated, was part of the architecture of Irish society for decades —scores of Mother and Baby Homes pried children from their mothers, for profit. "Those babies were sold as a commodity, aided and enabled and facilitated by the successive US and Irish admin," says Clodagh. "We want justice, and we aren't going away."
More revelations are to come: As the Pope's visit looms, Ireland is awaiting yet another inquiry into human rights abuses by the church and state, this time over the scale of adoptions from Mother and Baby Homes, due for release in February of 2019. "I think it's going to blow everything out of the water," says Clodagh. "But, for ourselves, in the meantime, we also have to forgive what they did to us. Because otherwise, we're still the victim."
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