When the Pope asked Ireland for forgiveness

By Leanna Byrne
BBC News NI, in Dublin

image copyrightReuters
image captionIn an unexpected address during Mass at Phoenix Park, Pope Francis asked for forgiveness for wrongs committed by Church figures

In 1979, the Pope told Ireland he loves her. In 2018, he asked her for forgiveness.

The tone for this visit was set before Pope Francis even set foot on the plane, as he published a 2,000 word letter to members of the Catholic Church addressing previous failures to deal with the cover-up of clerical sex abuse.

The theme of forgiveness has touched every one of his events during the first papal visit to the Republic of Ireland in 40 years: the quiet arrival, the sombre speeches and the modesty of it all.

This theme reached its pinnacle at Sunday's Mass in Dublin's Phoenix Park.

Standing under the Papal Cross erected especially for the event, nobody was ignoring the stark differences between 1979 and this weekend.

Indeed, it is an important part of the narrative.

media captionIreland - between two popes

Diarmuid Martin, the Archbishop of Dublin, opened the Mass comparing the two papal visits, stating that 39 years ago more than a million people gathered in the same place - but that Pope Francis was visiting a different Ireland.

"People have been wounded in the depth of their being by Church people; people's faith has been challenged," he said.

image copyrightPA
image captionPope Francis greeted crowds at Phoenix Park on Sunday ahead of Mass

Even numbers-wise it seems to be true, as some are reporting an unconfirmed crowd figure of approximately 130,000 souls at the Mass; the Vatican put the figure at close to 300,000.

In an unexpected address during the service's penitential rite, Pope Francis asked several times for forgiveness.

Intake of breath

He asked forgiveness for the abuses in Ireland; abuses of power, sexual abuse, exploitation through manual work and for abuses perpetrated by men and women of the Church.

media captionThe Pope must "get his head around" abuse victims' pain, says Father Patrick McCafferty

The crowd stood still, heads glued to big screens or turned towards the altar itself.

Even the rain seemed to hold its breath.

There was, of course, no response to these prayers, but those on the ground gave one anyway: an intake of breath followed by a round of applause after each weighty sentence.

A divided city

In his opening, Archbishop Martin hoped for a "spring" into the Irish Catholic Church could emerge after a bleak winter.

After all, huge crowds walked the length of Dublin city to be there.

image copyrightPA
image captionPeople travelled from far and wide to see the Pope during the historic visit

Following the Mass, pilgrims spoke of "hitting the right tone" and how humble and truthful the Pope had been over the weekend.

But at the other side of the city, a smaller, yet significant crowd gathered protesting a history of clerical abuse.

For them, forgiveness is not easily given.

image copyrightPA
image captionAnti-Church protesters gathered at the General Post Office (GPO) on O'Connell Street in Dublin

Outside the Garden of Remembrance, a sea of blue posters were raised saying simply: "Truth, Justice, Love".

Then a reminder of the Church's misalignment with modern Ireland took to the altar.

Saying prayers, a man with a "Love Both" hoodie - the campaign message against abortion laws.

The unofficial message is a memento of how the Catholic Church still frowns upon Ireland's most recent popular vote.

image copyrightPA
image captionPope Francis completed his trip to Ireland on Sunday evening

Well received, Pope Francis has completed a once-in-a-generation papal visit, his words of remorse welcome.

Catholic Ireland might not be the same one Pope John Paul II left in 1979, but it treated the head of the Church with respect - even if it now holds the institution he leads at arm's length.

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