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Flickers of hope

Comment & Opinion

SILENT PRAYER Pope Francis sits in quiet reflection in the Apparition Chapel on a chair made for the occasion. Archbishop of Tuam Dr Michael Neary  kneels in a pew behind.  Pic: Michael McLaughlin

SOMETIMES symbolism is exceedingly important and more often than not in the world of politics – whether that is of church or state – it is the impetus for transformative change.
There were many symbolic moments during Pope Francis’s deeply significant visit to Ireland over the weekend. Among them was his visit to the Capuchin Day Centre where Brother Kevin and hundreds of volunteers support the most marginalised of our society. A defining moment too was his private meeting with eight victims of institutional abuse by members of the Church. His trip to Knock Shrine also invoked a symbolism that reaches deep into our Christian culture and spirituality.       
Over an intense 36 hours of engagements, it was under a ceiling panel in St Patrick’s Hall in Dublin Castle – depicting the lighting of the paschal fire by our patron saint on the Hill of Slane, which intimates renewal and hope – that Pope Francis listened to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar delivering his most important address to date as leader of this country.   
In this considered speech, written by himself, he was sure to thank Pope Francis for his care for the planet and concerns for climate change, and for the empathy that he shows for the poor, for migrants and for refugees.  
He noted that it was the Christian faith that inspired Irish people to so many honourable aspirations, from the ideals of the 1916 Proclamation of Independence to the brave missionary ethos of the country’s many priests and nuns.    
Referring to ‘our shared history of sorrow and shame’, Leo observed how ‘the failures of church and state and wider society’ had ‘created a bitter and broken heritage for so many people, leaving a legacy of pain and suffering’.
“In place of Christian charity, forgiveness and compassion, far too often there was judgment, severity and cruelty, in particular towards women and children and those on the margins,” said Varadkar.
Later on Saturday afternoon, it was across the River Liffey in an entirely different world – you could say a parallel universe to the privilege and pomp of the gathering of dignitaries at Dublin Castle – that Pope Francis suddenly seemed at home. His natural humility and true Christian values clearly showed, and he was more relaxed among the clients, volunteers and religious brothers of the Capuchin Day Centre. A salutary reminder to all of us of the stark realities for our many fellow citizens.
While Pope Francis’ visit was part of the World Meeting of Families and the pageantry at the Croke Park carnival on Saturday night was spectacular and so uplifting, it was the private and low-key way that he met eight victims of institutional abuse that in so many ways defined his visit.
And for those of us living in the Archdiocese of Tuam, the dedication of historian Catherine Corless to the exposure and resolution of the scandalous happenings at Tuam Mother and Baby Home was brought centre-stage by a vigil that was held in the Co Galway town at the same time as the Papal Mass in the Phoenix Park on Sunday afternoon.
Of course, that was after his whistle-stop visit to Knock Shrine, where some 30,000 pilgrims awaited him from the early hours in heavy rain. Undeterred, the atmosphere was jubilant as Pope Francis toured the grounds of the Shrine in his Popemobile – a second one that was specially transported to Co Mayo for the occasion. But, perhaps, it was that meditative time in the Apparition Chapel when silence suffused the entire crowd, while Pope Francis bowed his head in prayer, that time stood still, a Catholic congregation took a communal deep breath and the tentative hope of a new beginning flickered in the weak sunshine.