“I hope today will be the day we forgive,” said a middle-aged Irish man on his way to attend the closing Mass of World Meeting of Families with Pope Francis Aug. 26.

Around 300,000 attendees at Phoenix Park, many of them Irish, stood in the cold rain to attend the Mass celebrated by the head of the Catholic Church, a monumental moment that hasn’t happened since Pope John Paul II visited the same park in 1979.

However, people say this Ireland is not like the one of 39 years ago.

Behind the wit and charm, sounds of anger, betrayal and anguish occasionally rang through the city of Dublin during the family-focused event last month. Minor protests popped up throughout the week, including an art installation that explained the stages of harm from child sex abuse. Outcry over the past mother-and-baby homes was also present. The homes for unwed mothers operated in Ireland during the 20th century. While it is unclear exactly how many women lived in these homes, the estimates range between 35,000 and 100,000 women. Children born in the homes were sometimes placed for adoption without their mother’s consent, or even sold, according to reports.

In 2015, the Irish government launched a commission into the mother-and-baby homes. The commission is due to report its findings next year.

“I am curious to hear what Pope Francis has to say,” a native taxi driver from Dublin, known as “Jackeens,” said ahead of the papal arrival. “I think the people are just looking for an apology. The Catholics in Ireland have been hurt a lot.”


The Historic Faith

Ireland, known for many missionaries and saints that created a strong “Irish Catholic,” made the Emerald Isle a bulwark of the Church. St. Patrick initiated this spread of Christianity in 461, igniting a furor to pursue the fullness of faith for years.

“The strength of Catholics in Ireland is that we are drawing upon a deep reservoir of faith that is contributed to the great missionary endeavor of the world,” Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh and the primate of all Ireland, told the Register. “Irish people by their very nature are welcoming people, but they are also missionary people, and we are proud of the fact that we’ve had many saints and scholars and missionaries who’ve gone out all over the world.”

“I think sometimes we do forget that [reservoir of faith], but it is in our blood to be a faithful people, so there have been a lot of persecution times through the centuries,” Archbishop Martin added. “We have become confused in Ireland between the cultural and the intentional Catholic.”


Irish Catholics Today

Nevertheless, 76% of the population still considers themselves Catholic, according to the papal-trip bulletin, and the practicing Catholics are devout.

The Iona Institute is an example of Catholics keeping the faith alive by being advocates for the Church’s teaching on controversial topics in Ireland, like marriage, family life and freedom of religion.

Ireland needs an increase in its understanding of the faith, said Tracy Harkin, EWTN Ireland member and the spokeswoman for the Iona Institute.

“[Catholicism] is kept alive, not because of the institution of the Church, but because reconversion always starts with a personal encounter,” she said.

“One of the big tasks for me as a Church leader is to try to encourage people to learn about their faith, to really understand what their faith teaches, why it teaches this, and what it asks of you,” Archbishop Martin said.

Many Irish Catholics who participated in the “Festival of Families” and the Mass with Francis last month had the intention to encounter Jesus.

“We are here because we are trying to live our Catholic faith as best we can, and there are a lot of challenges, as you well know,” said an Irish mother of six from Tipperary, Ireland. “It’s just lovely to come to something like this to be strengthened in your faith.”

Other pilgrims were nostalgic. An Irish woman from Belfast made the pilgrimage to see Pope John Paul II with her mother in 1979. Unfortunately, her mother died five days before Francis’ visit.

“I have fond memories, and I feel I am with my mother today. I brought my children with me because I want them to have the same exposure as I had.”

The Irish families who attended also expressed their hopes that this event with their children will lead to a stronger Catholicism among youth.

“The Catholic faith is dying a bit, and it has to get to the grassroots to get growing again, and it’s going to have to come from the youth,” said the father of six from Tipperary.

At the pastoral congress three days before the meeting with Pope Francis, 6,000 young people registered and expressed their joy in meeting other Catholic youth from around the world and sharing in the festivities.

“Grace sends you out to be a missionary, to be bold, to be courageous in a world that, perhaps even, wants to reject you,” Archbishop Martin said. “And that’s what the Irish saints did down through the centuries, and that’s what we need to call on the Irish people to do again today.”


Pope in Ireland

Visiting Ireland after many years, Francis brought the challenges to light through reflection on the importance of being a testimony of faith. “As one of the fruits of this celebration of family life, may you go back to your homes and become a source of encouragement to others,” Francis said in his homily.

While many came to support Francis in the joy of marriage and family, a desire for peace, assurance and transformation lingered over the crowd.

Unfortunately, the event was contrasted with investigating sexual abuse that echoed throughout the weekend. “We’ve had a hard time the last 20 years or so,” said a man from Dublin with his wife and two sons. “It will be a hard road to recover where it is right now, and it will take time, but I think, eventually, Ireland can recover. People just want better morals,” he said, referring to the faithful adherence of the magisterium.

After meeting sex-abuse survivors as well as survivors of Irish mother-and-baby homes, Francis responded by asking for forgiveness on behalf of the Catholic Church for the habitual abuse that took place in Ireland.

He also shared about his Ireland visit at his Aug. 29 general audience, saying that, although the World Meeting of Families in Ireland was a “comforting” experience to witness families engaged in fervently promoting marriage and family life, he also experienced much “pain and bitterness,” which he said left a profound mark on his heart.

“On several occasions I asked the Lord for forgiveness for these sins, for the scandal and the sense of betrayal procured,” he said.

At the end, Francis’ litany of forgiveness and call to heroic Christianity was warmly accepted by the Irish people.

As Pauline Deraney — who spoke at the pastoral congress with her husband, Damien, accompanied by her 8-month-old son, Samuel — told the Register: I think you have to keep your eyes on Jesus, and that will get you through.”

Rachel Lanz is a Register staff writer based in Rome.

She blogged

from Dublin last month.