When Pope John Paul II landed in Ireland in September 1979, he stepped off his Aer Lingus flight and bent down to kiss the ground.
“The older people, some of them carrying babies, holding them up so that they can whisper in their ears, when they in turn are old, they can say to their children they were here on this day,” the RTE broadcaster said.
The pontiff’s brief visit to the island was one of the largest gatherings in Ireland’s history: Some 2.7 million people came out to see him, lining the streets to watch him pass and later cramming into Dublin’s Phoenix Park, where he performed Mass for more than 1 million people.
Diarmaid Ferriter, a professor at University College Dublin, called it a “massive national mobilization.”
Rob Savage, a professor at Boston College, said Pope John Paul II was like “a rock star.”
“That’s how Ireland saw that pope,” he said.
On Saturday, almost 40 years since the last papal visit, Pope Francis will greet a vastly changed country.
Pope John Paul II’s arrival in 1979 came at a fraught time for Ireland. The predominantly Catholic country was deeply affected by the dark period known as the Troubles, a decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland that ultimately left at least 3,600 dead. Around a month before the pope landed, the Irish Republican Army bombed Lord Louis Mountbatten’s boat, killing him and one of his grandsons. He was Queen Elizabeth II’s cousin, and that same day, a separate IRA bombing killed 18 British troops in Warrenpoint, Northern Ireland.
Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland came early during his time as the leader of the Catholic Church, at a moment when much international attention on the country had to do with the unabated conflict. For some, the pope’s visit may have offered a momentary reprieve from so much negative coverage.
“This was the world looking in while he was there for a reason other than us shooting each other in Northern Ireland,” said Anne Dolan, a professor at Trinity College, Dublin.
The pope initially planned to visit Northern Ireland on the same trip but security concerns held him back. He made it only as far as Killineer, close to Drogheda near the border. He famously — and unsuccessfully — called for an end to the conflict.
“On my knees I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence and return to the ways of peace,” he said. “You may claim to seek justice. I too believe in justice and seek justice. But violence only delays the day of justice.”
Savage called 1979 “one of the most difficult years of the Troubles.” He said he remembers the pope “making this impassioned plea for them to end this.”
“Of course, it just got worse,” Savage said. “His plea for an end to the violence fell on deaf ears. No one was interested in listening to him.”
The 1970s were “such a bloody decade in Ireland,” Ferriter said. And it would take nearly two more decades from the time of the pope’s visit for a peace deal that put an official end to the Troubles in 1998.
In recent years, Ireland has experienced an almost unbelievable wave of social change. Same-sex marriage was legalized in 2015, and an abortion ban was repealed this year. Divorce is legal and contraception is readily available. Sex-abuse scandals and revelations about Magdalene Laundries and baby homes have deeply shaken the predominantly Catholic country, leading to wide distrust in the Catholic Church — an institution that once wielded tremendous power in Ireland. As Post correspondent William Booth wrote this week, the recent abortion referendum marked Ireland’s “full emergence as a socially liberal state no longer obedient to Catholic dictates.”
“Ireland was white, English-speaking and Catholic in 1979. It was very monocultural,” Ferriter said. “In some ways, the 1979 visit was a reward for this steadfast loyalty of the Irish and their allegiance to the faith.”
This weekend, Pope Francis will meet with survivors of sex abuse at the hands of Catholic priests and with Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who is gay. While Pope Francis has condemned sex abuse, many in Ireland see him as not having gone far enough. Varadkar is expected to press him on how the church could do more for victims of abuse and the ways the church has excluded the LGBT community.
Although there will be a large gathering for the pope’s Mass in Phoenix Park this weekend, observers don’t expect anything like the showing in 1979. The church is still influential in Ireland, especially in the educational system. Ireland is still largely Catholic, though far fewer people attend Mass than once did. Too much has happened, and too much has changed.
“The church in Ireland became far too powerful and it abused that power,” Ferriter said. “There was no critical questioning going on during that visit about the church and its teachings. It was an opportunity for unbridled celebration. Things are very different now.”