In an observation unthinkable here if the pope were visiting five or 10 years ago, a young Irish television critic wrote recently that he was not looking forward to end of this month because "there will be nothing but the pope on television for three days."
The Irish Catholic church hopes that the papal visit next weekend, the first here in history, will inspire just young people to become more interested in the church again. Church leaders hope that the charismatic pope John Paul II will help them combat the materialism they have seen rivaling religion for the Irish ethos ever since Ireland's great economic leap forward began in the 1960s.
Here in Dublin, where nearly a third of Ireland's population now lives, it is estimated that half the people under 25 no longer attend mass. Although they nearly all were raised in Catholic homes, a growing number say they are no longer practicing Catholics.
These young people also have turned away from traditional religious vacations, leaving nearly empty the once burgeoning church institutions for training priests, religious brothers and nuns. There are no longer enough Irish priests to send out on missions around the globe, and in some parts of Ireland itself priests must be borrowed from elsewhere in the country.
In Limerick in western Ireland, traditionally the most religious part of the country, the church has been wooing young people and the many tourists who visit these areas with a mid-summer "solemn novena," a nine-day series of "pop" masses somewhat resembling evangelist revival meetings.
Affable young priests deliver rather light sermons in the popular idiom and enthusiastically conduct the hymns like sing-alongs.
Camping vans lined up outside supplement the church confession boxes for the overflow of worshippers this relatively new event attracts each year.
Since the announcement of the papal visit, the church hierarchy has become much more frank about the crisis of the Catholic Church in Ireland," said Irish historian Ronan Fanning, a professor at the University College Dublin. "The church leadership had not really acknowledged its failure to hold onto the young people. It hopes the pope will fight materialism and sees his visit as a possible turning point."
Ireland's archbishops and bishops did not put it quite that way, however, in a pastoral letter about the pope's visit that was read by priests to parishoners throughout the country a few Sundays ago.
"By this visit," they told Ireland's Catholics, "Pope John Paul is paying tribute to the faith of Ireland. He is honoring Ireland's unbroken fidelity to that faith.
"He is underlining the contribution Irish missionaries have made to evangelism across the world. He comes above all to confirm and to renew us in that faith and fidelity and missionary zeal."
But the Rev. Liam Ryan, a noted Catholic sociology professor and close observer of the Irish church hierarchy who has been coordinating planning for the pope's visit, said church leaders "do not really see this as a triumphal papal visit to reward Ireland for centuries of Catholic solidarity.
"Instead, they see the visit as an occasion for bringing more vitality into religious life here," he said in an interview. "The church hopes it will be the start of something that could remedy the downward trend."
"The church hierarchy knows that Ireland is changing," he said. "But it doesn't really know how or what to do about it. Instead, it harbors the belief that isn't really happening, that it's all a passing phase and the traditional manner of religious behavior will return again."
Ryan clearly does not share that belief. He said the church has "lost its nerve" facing the threat posed by Irish social change.
"The pope's visit could give the church hierarchy back its nerve and its willingness to launch out again," he said. "If the visit doesn't inspire a new beginning there, it certainly won't among Ireland's young people."
Extraordinarily comprehensive arrangements are being made for the pope's visit here. Money to help pay for the estimated $2 to $4 million cost of hosting him is being raised at Sunday masses. The country's entire public transportation system has been mobilized to take people to and from the six principal public events at which the pope will appear here and at five locations throughout Ireland.
The largest crowd, up to 1 million people, is expected on the pope's first day in Ireland next Saturday here in sprawling Phoenix Park, the most spacious urban green space in Europe. A huge altar covered by an acre of carpet and a 110-foot-high cross have been built there.
Private automobile and truck traffic will be banned from Dublin for the entire day to let people through on foot and in buses. Worshipers will be carefully organized inside Phoenix Park in roped-off groups of 1,000 on up to ensure each person seven square feet of space in which to sit or stand. Special places will be reserved for dignitaries, the press, the handicapped and Polish visitors.
Similar arrangements are being made for the pope's appearances at St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, near here, the Knock Shrine in northwestern Ireland, the Galway and Limerick race courses on the western coats (the pope will say mass at the Limerick race course from the starter's stand), and the small city of Drogheda near the border with British-ruled Northern Ireland.
It is at Drogheda, in a large meadow just outside the city, that the pope is expected to address the other principal concern of the Irish Catholic Church: Irish Republican Army violence in both Ulster and Ireland and the problem of how the Ulster question can be proved peacefully.
What the pope will say is eagerly awaited by Irish and British officials and others who have been closely watching the words of the Irish church hierarchy on Ulster. Cardinal O'Fiaich, the new archbishop of Armagh and the primate of all Ireland, is known to be a strong nationalist favoring reunification of Ireland and Northern Ireland.He has both criticized Britain for its treatment of IRA suspects and strongly condemned IRA acts of terrorism such as last month's assassination of Lord Mountbatten in Ireland.
The timing of the pope's visit during a major upsurge in IRA terrorism is coincidental, although the Mountbatten assassination persuaded the Vatican to rule out travey by the pope into Ulster, which has been a major disappointment to Catholics both there and here.
The pope initially was invited to Ireland "without any real hope of his accepting," according to Fr. Ryan.
If the papal visit is by far the most important event in a century for some villages it is one of three major events for Irish Catholics since Ireland's independence. The others were the Eucharistic Congress held here in 1932, which at the time was a dramatic reaffirmation of Ireland's centuries of loyal Catholicism, and the visit of President John F. Kennedy in the summer of 1963.
Kennedy's visit one official here said, was "a symbol of our having arrived in the world as a nation. The whole country stopped for Kennedy, and to this day you can find his picture alongside that of Pope John [XXIII] in most Irish homes."
Irish church leaders believe Pope John Paul II will make at least that strong an impression on Ireland. His visit is the chief subject of conversation here and most Irish people say they will watch him either in person or, probably more comfortably, on television from their homes.
"Summing up the general state of the Irish church," Fr. Ryan said, "it still has a lot of assets in terms of general good will towards it and a great deal of still solid religious faith. But the general trend of modern Irish life is threatening to undermine those assets, and the church hopes that the pope can help shore them up."