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By Jason Michael

“WHAT IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE?” asks Angie on Twitter, “If you come out to greet the man who protects perpetrators of the rape and buggery of young children, what does that say about you?” It feels pointless even attempting to address the tsunami of rage, coming, in many instances, from people who have shown little interest in the survivors of clerical sex abuse until now. One would almost get the impression it is being used as a handy weapon. There is no mistaking the hatred in the air, a hatred lashing out at anything and everything visibly Christian – always using the suffering and pain of others as an excuse to victimise and harass ordinary people.

“You will never know how truly hated you are – as a Catholic and a Christian,” I posted in response to the torrent of rage on social media, “until you read the hashtag #PopeInIreland.” It wasn’t long before someone came back to me: “Tell that bullshit pious wish of yours to the tens of thousands of young boys who were messed up by sick as shit Catholic Priests. They already felt the love.” The guy who said this, James, quickly followed it up with the quote; “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” He went silent the moment I pointed out that the source of the quote, Desmond Tutu, was an Archbishop.

Even Near FM presenter Norma Burke weighed in to say that I was “denying these crimes,” that I was a “rape apologist,” and a “sick person.” All she knew was what I had disclosed – that I was a Christian. But, of course, as Norma said, to mention – to speak up about – this treatment is “playing the victim.” It doesn’t matter that this is a clear case of prejudice and bigotry; directed against people in public and online for no other reason than their faith. We are expected to sit down and shut up and, most importantly, not play the victim. We are expected to stay silent even when the former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese – a secular saint – described the Papal Mass as “essentially a right-wing rally,” lumping perfectly nice grandmothers in with characters like Steve Bannon, Richard Spencer, David Duke, Nick Griffin, Nigel Farage, and Donald Trump.

It doesn’t matter that Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis have all issued apologies for the atrocious and sinful abuse of children and vulnerable people and for the Church’s disgraceful inaction and frequent efforts in the past to pervert the course of justice. These apologies are always conveniently forgotten. The demand that the Pope apologise always forgets that he has, as did his predecessor and his predecessor’s predecessor. One begins to imagine that it’s not really about either an apology or indeed the victims of the abuse. One begins to get the feeling – certainly with the horrendous personalised abuse in public and online – that this is about a venomous hatred of the Church and Christians. This was certainly how it felt during the Eighth Amendment referendum campaign earlier this year. It was a difficult time to be a Catholic. It still is.

So, I ask that you forgive me for feeling as though this is Christmas morning. Pope Francis, the Patriarch of the West, the Vicar of Christ, has come to be with his Church – the People of God – sojourning in Ireland. Not taking one ounce from the victimhood of those who have suffered at the hands of members of the clergy and the religious orders, it has been a long dark night for Christians in this country. We too have been through the grief and anger of betrayal. We too have been heartbroken to discover the details of the negligence and cruelty of bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and popes. But we have been stuck between two impossibilities; living a life of faith in a Church that remains to us the Body of Christ, knowing its abysmal human failings, and living in a world that simply refuses to distinguish between us and men and women who committed unspeakable acts.

This living on the threshold has taken a toll on us. Since the late 1990s, when the scales were first taken from our eyes, we have had to come to terms with new realities and battle for our faith in new and unfamiliar territories. My own journey, like that of many other Catholics, was one that made it impossible for me to consider myself a Roman Catholic. The hierarchy had been – perhaps forever – tainted. It no longer held the moral authority, no matter what the Church taught, to hold my allegiance. The papacy was no longer the infallible and unassailable Rock it had once been.

As St Paul has put it:

When I was a child, I used to talk like a child, and see things as a child does, and think like a child; but now that I have become an adult, I have finished with all childish ways.

But nothing of this changed my faith – the belief in one God; Father, Son, and Spirit, in the Church and her mission, in the command to love without counting the cost, and in the instruction to pray for everyone indiscriminately. This was my faith, it was our faith. It wasn’t owned by the clergy. It wasn’t owned by the bishops, the archbishops, the cardinals, or even the pope in Rome. This was our faith and the Church was Christ’s – and no one on earth could bar us from entering.

There were and are many other experiences of coming to terms with this history, but almost everywhere we see the same – the affirmation of the catholicity; the essential unity and oneness, of the faith. Over the past twenty years this Christianity has carried us through a time that can only properly be described as a wilderness. Numbers attending Mass have dwindled. Everywhere in society we are a laughing stock. We have become those “otherwise intelligent people…” But today the successor of Peter has come. True, he is no longer that messiah John Paul II was when he came in 1979. He is something different. He is one of us.

Yet, as one of us, he represents and embodies a long memory of the Christian faith on this side of Europe. Two millennia of tradition – sacred and secular – subsist in his white cassock. He is Peter. He is Polycarp. He is a symbol of the best and the worst we have been through – the suffering of persecution and the sufferings we have inflicted. Francis brings to us that reminder of our Mother, the Church, with its chequered all-too-human history and its hope of redemption. He may not be the pope we wanted – some holier than thou great mediaeval Roman Pontiff, but by God he’s the pope we sure as hell need. We, the People of God, broken and weary, have not been forgotten.

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Pope Francis reads the words of Jesus and the people respond! Beautiful.


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