In 2015, when Leo Varadkar was serving as Ireland’s health minister, he came out as a gay man on national radio.
The country was preparing to vote in a same-sex marriage referendum, and Varadkar told the radio host that his sexuality is “not a secret, but it’s not something that everyone would necessarily know.”
He also said, “It’s not something that defines me.”
Two-and-a-half years later, Varadkar, whose father was an Indian immigrant, was named prime minister. He is Ireland’s first openly gay leader, the first leader from a minority background and, at 38 at the time of his appointment, the country’s youngest prime minister.
On Saturday, Varadkar welcomed Pope Francis to Ireland, a nation that has radically changed since the last papal visit, in 1979. At that time, homosexuality was still a crime. Now, the country’s prime minister is gay.
Varadkar is a distinct example of how what was once an overwhelmingly white, Catholic nation is now increasingly diverse and its laws increasingly secular. Ireland is the first country to have legalized same-sex marriage through a popular vote, and this year, the country repealed its restrictive abortion ban. Many see the country’s new policies and shifting demographics as evidence that the Irish are moving further and further away from the Catholic Church.
The day before his arrival, Varadkar said the church previously “had too much of a dominant place in our society.”
And in his remarks in front of the pope Saturday, the prime minister said the Irish have “voted in our Parliament and by referendum to modernize our laws.” He said new policies reflect the country’s understanding that “marriages don’t always work, that women should make their own decisions, and that families come in many different wonderful forms including those headed by a grandparent, lone parent or same-sex partners or parents who are divorced and remarried.”
Brian Finnegan, editor of Ireland’s Gay Community News, said that the last time a pope visited, 39 years ago, Irish leaders were more likely to have said: “ ‘We wont have any contraception or allow people divorce or even talk of homosexuality,’ just ‘your eminence, you’re here, and we love you, and we love the church.' ”
“There would’ve been no defense at all,” he said.
That makes Varadkar’s meeting with the pope that much more symbolic. For many, an openly gay leader of a predominantly Catholic country meeting the leader of the Catholic Church, an institution that does not recognize same-sex marriage, would have once been unthinkable.
“It’s quite empowering to see a gay leader of a country stand in front of the gay community on the stage of Dublin Pride and say we’re valid and we’re valuable and we have every reason to be proud of who we are given the long history of oppression,” Finnegan said.
In an interview with RTE news Friday, Varadkar said he hoped to talk to the pope about issues including clerical sex abuse and the exclusion of the LGBT community from the church. Varadkar had a brief meeting with the pope following his more public remarks Saturday. His spokesman told the Irish Times that he “said to the pope that there are huge numbers of people here who have faith in their heart but who feel excluded and alienated from the church because of what happened.”
Already on Saturday, campaigners for sex abuse survivors said the pontiff had not gone far enough in taking responsibility for the Vatican’s role in covering up abuse at the hands of the clergy.
Tiernan Brady, director of Equal Future, an LGBT advocacy campaign, said he is not hopeful that a single, brief meeting between Varadkar and Francis will do much to change the pontiff’s position on marriage equality and other LGBT issues. But “when someone stands up and talks about themselves, it changes the space that they’re in,” Brady said. “For our gay prime minister to talk to the pope is a fantastic moment to demonstrate the reality of life in Ireland.”
And in modern-day Ireland, Brady said, “being LGBT is unremarkable in daily life.”
“We’re wonderfully blasé about having a gay prime minister,” he said. And that alone shows just how much Ireland has changed.