The Whole World, a Big Family: Pope Francis in Ireland

Antonio Spadaro, SJ

 Antonio Spadaro, SJ / Church Life / Published Date:13 September 2018/Last Updated Date:22 April 2021

At about 8 a.m. on August 25, an Aer Lingus flight with Pope Francis, his entourage and journalists aboard took off for Dublin. The pope was heading to Ireland because its capital was the setting for the Ninth World Meeting of Families (August 21-26) on the theme, “The Gospel of the Family: Joy for the World.”

Francis had taken part in the previous meeting in Philadelphia in 2015 during his apostolic journey to the United States. Every three years, this important international event unites families from across the world to celebrate, pray and reflect together on the fundamental importance of marriage and the family for life, society and the Church.[1]

The trip focused on the Meeting of Families but took place in a complex land where intergenerational tensions exist between those who feel at ease in a media-driven postmodernity and another, older generation tied to the Catholic tradition. The Irish Church, which was until recently a very strong institution, today sometimes seems beleaguered and humiliated.

La Civilta Cattolica

In particular, the theme of abuse emerged starkly at the end of July with the publication of the Report by the Grand Jury of Pennsylvania on the sexual abuse of minors committed by Catholic clergy. On August 20, following that Report, the pope wrote a Letter to the People of God.[2] The echo of what had happened was heard in Ireland and recalled by Francis in his talks. It must be said that in every Irish parish there are many Catholics carrying out a rich life of prayer and service. We have already spoken about these lights and shadows in our journal.[3]

 The meeting with the authorities of Ireland

The welcome ceremony took place at the presidential residence. The pope was received by Mr. Michael D. Higgins, the president of Ireland, and his spouse at the main entrance to the residence. To welcome him were also a family of refugees and an Irish family that hosts refugees.

After the courtesy visit, the president accompanied Francis to the garden of the residence, and the pope planted a tree. He was then taken to Dublin Castle, which is located in the center of the city on the southern bank of the River Liffey, to meet with some 250 people, including political and religious authorities, representatives of civil society and the diplomatic corps. A delegation was present from Northern Ireland. The pope was welcomed at the main entrance by the Taoiseach (Prime minister). He spent some time with them, affectionately greeting three children, and was able to speak with Katherine Zappone, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. She spoke words that touched clearly on the drama of abuse, making such an impression on Francis that he himself would repeat them later.

Using an ancient tradition of the Irish people, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar welcomed Pope Francis to Dublin Castle. He mentioned the time Bergoglio spent “in 1980 at the Jesuit center learning English.” The Taoiseach thanked the pope for having underlined the urgent challenge of climate change and for the empathy shown for the poor, migrants and refugees. “The Church,” he stated, “has always helped us understand that we are citizens of a wider world and part of a global family.” And “our brave missionary priests and nuns provided an education to many around the world, and helped the sick, the poor and the vulnerable.” The Taoiseach stated that the Church was in the frontline providing healthcare and education as well as refuge for those most in need. In this perspective, he stated, the witness of the pope to “those who are at the margins of our society” speaks clearly.

Varadkar then recalled the “history of sorrow and shame” in the violence against children and women. He asked the pope to do everything possible to ensure justice be done. And above all he asked him “to listen to the victims.” “Ireland,” he concluded, “is increasingly diverse: one in six of us were not born here, and there are more and more people who adhere to other faiths,” or who follow no organized religion.” Today, “religion is no longer at the center of our society, but it still has an important place” and so now is the time “to build a new relationship between church and state in Ireland.”

Francis then gave his first public speech, entirely centered on the specific theme of the journey: the family. The approach to the theme was significantly tied to the social importance of the family and its unique role in the development of society as a whole. The pope spoke of family dynamics as a model of sharing, solidarity and service for the common good. Then he widened his perspectives to consider how the whole world is a single family, due to the bonds of the human community. He quoted the “persistent evils of racial and ethnic hatred,” the “intractable conflicts and violence,” the “contempt for human dignity and for fundamental human rights,” and “the growing divide between rich and poor.” And he exclaimed: “How much we need to recover, in every instance of political and social life, the sense of being a true family of peoples!”

Given the long conflict that separated the inhabitants of the island, we can say that Ireland has lived its own family difficulty. So this was an important occasion to recall the importance of one delicate phase of current history, namely the exiting of the United Kingdom from the European Union and the consequences this deed will have for the boundary between the Republic and the North.

The pope recalled “our ideal of a global family of nations” that “risks becoming no more than another empty platitude” if we don’t work to build “a more just and equitable social order.” Among the challenges, he spoke of the “massive refugee crisis,” which is not destined to disappear and “whose solution calls for a wisdom, a breadth of vision and a humanitarian concern that go far beyond short-term political decisions.”

He then made direct reference to the “grave scandal caused in Ireland by the abuse of young people by members of the Church charged with responsibility for their protection and education.” He acknowledged that “the failure of ecclesiastical authorities – bishops, religious superiors, priests and others – to adequately address these repellent crimes has rightly given rise to outrage, and remains a source of pain and shame for the Catholic community.”

Finally, he reminded the Irish of their roots and how the Christian message preached by Palladius and Patrick more than 1,500 years ago became an integral part of Irish culture. And he concluded his speech by describing Ireland, with its changes and tensions, as “listening to the polyphony of contemporary political and social discussion.” He asked the country that in this listening it “not be forgetful of the powerful strains of the Christian message that have sustained it in the past, and can continue to do so in the future.”

 The faithful, the survivors, the Jesuits, the families

In the afternoon, around 3:30 p.m., Francis went to St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, the most important church in Dublin, symbol of Catholic rebirth in the city. Its history is closely tied to the most important political-religious episodes of the country. Situated on the central Marlborough Street, the building rises on the land of a Cistercian abbey that was suppressed after the Anglican schism of 1534. The pro-Cathedral, considered one of the finest churches in the neo-classical style in all Ireland, was built at the request of a Dominican Archbishop of Dublin, John Thomas Troy, and was consecrated on November 14, 1825.

The pope was welcomed at the main entrance by the archbishop of Dublin and the metropolitan chapter. A young couple offered him flowers near the altar, which he then placed before the Most Blessed Sacrament, staying some time in silent prayer. In the chapel a candle is lit for the victims of abuse.

Then there were brief greetings from an elderly couple and two young couples. They asked the pope some questions. Francis replied, referring to personal experiences tied to his family. He spoke of love as a dream, risk and commitment. And he said that you have to be open to fear if you want to be able to love.

After the meeting he went to the Capuchin Day Centre for Homeless People, founded 48 years ago by Fr. Kevin Crowley. The center offers services for those of no fixed abode and families in need, which have grown in number in Ireland since the financial crisis. The services are entirely offered by volunteers and are entirely paid for by private donations and different organizations, schools, parish groups and associations.

The pope was welcomed at the lateral entrance to the refectory by 10 Capuchin fathers who run the Day Centre. In the courtyard were the staff and volunteers who work for the center. Inside the refectory were about 100 of those being assisted. After a short word of welcome from the director, the pope spoke to those present; at the end, he blessed them and left by the side door.

Then he returned to the Nunciature where he met eight people who had been abused by clerics. He spoke with them for an hour and a half, listening and discussing. A communication signed by two participants states: “The meeting was cordial and gentle and the pope was given a letter that speaks of at least 100,000 unmarried mothers being forced to give up their children.”[4]

Then he met 62 Jesuits. He stayed with them for half an hour for a conversation that we are publishing separately. Those present included two Jesuit bishops: Alan McGuckian, Bishop of Raphoe (Ireland), and Terrence Prendergast, Archbishop of Ottawa.

Keeping to a busy, almost breathless schedule, at 7:15 p.m. Francis went to Croke Park Stadium, where over 75,000 people from around 35 countries had attended the Mass for the closure of the 50th International Eucharistic Congress in 2012. After passing through the crowds of faithful, he participated in the Feast of Families.

The welcome was very warm. The words of greeting and prayer from Cardinal Kevin Farrell were followed by dancing and testimony by families from India, Canada, Iraq, Ireland and Burkina Faso. The ambience was of a great party, animated by music from different lands. Over 80,000 were present.

Francis read his speech from a written text, but often improvised with off-the-cuff remarks. He began his reflections recalling the family nature of the Church, which is “one family in Christ, spread throughout the world.” In light of this vision, the pope spoke of the family as it is, in its “daily routine.” “God’s grace helps us daily to live as one in mind and heart. Even daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law! No one said this would be easy. You know better than I. It is like making tea: it is easy to bring the water to a boil, but a good cup of tea takes time and patience; it needs to brew! So it is that each day Jesus warms us with his love and lets it penetrate our whole being.”

In his talk the pope echoed the testimonies, like those of Enass and Sarmaad, which have brought us to understand how “how a family’s love and faith can be a source of strength and peace even amid the violence and destruction caused by war and persecution.”

Francis went back to the leitmotiv of his speeches: humanity as a family. And so he invited the Christian families to act to help “draw all God’s children closer together, so that they can grow in unity and learn what it is for the entire world to live in peace as one great family.” The meeting finished with prayer and a final blessing.

The sanctuary at Knock and the meeting with the bishops

The next day, Sunday, August 26, after taking his leave of the staff of the Nunciature, the pope traveled on an Aer Lingus flight from Dublin airport to Knock. The village has a population of less than 1,000 and is located in the Irish county of Mayo. It is famous for its sanctuary where there was a Marian apparition in the 19th century.[5] About 1.5 million pilgrims head there each year. It should be remembered that on August 15, 2013, the sanctuary hosted the solemn consecration of Ireland to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It is not far from Croagh Patrick, the legendary place where St. Patrick chased away all the snakes from the island and fasted, in the year 441, for the 40 days of Lent. Each year, the last Sunday of July (Reek Sunday), thousands of pilgrims – some barefoot – climb the mountain. St. John Paul II visited Knock on September 30, 1979, to commemorate the centenary of the apparition.

Francis was welcomed by the archbishop of Tuam and four bishops from the ecclesiastical province. Some children were also present. On arriving in the Chapel of the Apparitions, the pope was welcomed by the rector of the sanctuary. Around 200 faithful were gathered in the chapel. After some time of recollection and silent meditation before the image of the Madonna, the pope offered a golden rosary and, at the end, went to the podium in the square to recite the Angelus.

His words touched again on the pain caused by the drama of abuse. He said, “May Our Lady also look with mercy on all the suffering members of her Son’s family. In my prayer before her statue, I presented to her in particular all the survivors of abuse committed by members of the Church in Ireland. None of us can fail to be moved by the stories of young people who suffered abuse, were robbed of their innocence, were separated from their mothers, and were left scarred by painful memories. This open wound challenges us to be firm and decisive in the pursuit of truth and justice. I beg the Lord’s forgiveness for these sins and for the scandal and betrayal felt by so many others in God’s family.”

Francis also said that he asked “our Blessed Mother to intercede for all the survivors of abuse of any kind and to confirm every member of our Christian family in the resolve never again to permit these situations to occur. And to intercede for all of us, so that we can proceed always with justice and remedy, to the extent it depends on us, such violence.”

Again at the Angelus, the pope recalled “the beloved people of Northern Ireland,” assuring them of his affection and closeness in prayer: “I ask Our Lady to sustain all the members of the Irish family to persevere, as brothers and sisters, in the work of reconciliation.” And he mentioned the “advances in ecumenism and the significant growth of friendship and cooperation between the Christian communities.”

After the Angelus, Francis made a special greeting to men and women prisoners before making his way to the airport to return to Dublin.

In the afternoon the pope was taken to Phoenix Park, one of Europe’s largest city parks. Its greenery extends over 700 hectares (1730 acres). It is situated just 3 kilometers northwest of the center of Dublin and is surrounded by a perimeter wall 16 kilometers long. The great papal cross commemorates the Mass celebrated by St. John Paul II on September 29, 1979. Here Pope Francis celebrated Mass before 300,000 people.

For the occasion, the pope wrote his own penitential act, which he read himself in Spanish, with a subsequent translation into English. He began thus: “Yesterday I met with eight persons who are survivors of the abuse of power, the abuse of conscience and sexual abuse. In reflecting on what they told me, I wish to implore the Lord’s mercy for these crimes and to ask forgiveness for them.”

In his homily Francis said the love of Christ “became incarnate in our world through a family, and through the witness of Christian families in every age it has the power to break down every barrier in order to reconcile the world to God and to make us what we were always meant to be: a single human family dwelling together in justice, holiness and peace.”

And so he came back to speaking of the family in the perspective of a reconciled humanity, of a human family as a whole. The world has a vocation to be a family. Recalling the first Irish missionaries, Francis stated that by their Gospel witness they helped “give birth to the culture of Europe.” Bringing this lesson up to today, he underlined some knots that Europe is facing, like “welcoming the migrant and the foreigner” – a theme he came back to for the second time during the journey – and “protecting the rights of the most vulnerable, the unborn or the elderly, who seem to impinge upon our own sense of freedom.”

At 5 p.m. Francis went to the nearby convent of Dominican sisters. There he met with the bishops of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, which gathers the prelates of the four metropolitan archdioceses and 22 dioceses of Eire and of Northern Ireland and their four auxiliaries. The current president is Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh (Northern Ireland), primate of all Ireland.[6]

The pope gave an important speech that continued the fraternal discussion the Irish bishops had had with him during their ad limina visit last year. He came back for the third time to the theme of abuse, recalling “the ways of purification and reconciliation with the victims of abuse,” but also the rigorous set of norms – established with the help of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Church in Ireland – aimed at ensuring the safety of the young.

Francis said that “families are growing more and more conscious of their own irreplaceable role in passing on the faith,” and at a time of trial for the “traditionally strong faith of the Irish people.” But he also recognized that “the upheavals of recent years” have “offered the opportunity for an interior renewal of the Church in this country and pointed to new ways of envisioning its life and mission.”

With this message, aware of the enormous challenges but also open to the opportunities that the crisis offers, he invited the bishops to never give up hope, to be “fathers and pastors of the family of God in this country.”

After meeting with the bishops, the pope went to Dublin airport for the farewell ceremony. The Aer Lingus papal flight departed at 6:45 p.m. and landed at Rome’s Ciampino airport at 10.45 p.m. For the first time, the pope sat in the pilot’s cabin for the landing and was able to admire from on high the city of Rome and pray over it. Thus concluded his apostolic journey to Ireland, his 24th outside of Italy.

                                                                                           * * *

The main theme of the papal trip was clearly that of the family as the deepest meaning for the Church and for society. Christ himself became incarnate in a family setting; the Church is “family of families,” and the Christian message is spread through the witness of Christian families.

The family is a fundamental element in the development of society; families are “the glue of society.” The family is where we learn what we have always been called to be: a single human family that lives together in justice and peace.

Placing the message on the family into a wider context, Francis spoke of the world and of the need for a deep unity in a world marked by conflict and divisions among peoples. Recalling that that world is called to be united is clearly a prophetic message.

This understanding of family clearly touches on the task of the Church, which is called on to feed the spirit of the family in the world. And so pastors too are called to live a familial relation with the people of God. “As good fathers,” Francis told the bishops of Ireland, “we want to encourage and inspire, to reconcile and unify, and above all, to preserve all the good handed down from generation to generation in this great family which is the Church in Ireland.”

Feature image taken from this video of Pope Francis’ visit and Angelus, Shrine of Our Lady of Knock

[1] The World Meetings of Families began in 1994 when Pope John Paul asked the Pontifical Council for the Family (now part of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life) to set up an international moment of prayer, catechesis and celebration to bring people together from around the world to strengthen families and witness to the fundamental importance of marriage and the family for all of society. The event this year took place August 21-26 around four main moments: Inauguration, Congress (a rich program with talks, workshops, seminars, witness, debate, and shows, cultural events and music), Festival and Solemn Eucharistic Celebration. The complete program is available at


[3] A. McGuckian, “Ireland, Whence and Whither?” in

[4] The press release says: “Pope Francis condemned the corruption and cover up of abuse within the Church as caca.” Those participating in the meeting did not understand this word. The interpreter explained: “literally, the dirt you would see in a bathroom.” A word unfamiliar to the participants, but effective.

[5] On August 21, 1879, under driving rain, the Virgin, St. John and St. Joseph appeared on the south gable of the local parish church. The apparition lasted two hours and was seen first by two women, and then by another handful of people from the village. On October 8, 1879, the Archbishop of Tuam, John MacHale, set up a commission of inquiry to seek out the truthfulness of the apparition. A second commission was established in 1936. Both commissions found that the witnesses who had been present were “trustworthy and satisfactory.” Devotion to the Virgin of Knock started to spread thanks to the healing of some sick people who had visited the shrine. Soon a chapel with transparent glass was build next to the parish church and pilgrimages began to what was then recognized as a Marian shrine. In 1976 a great new church was added to the parish church. This was – and still is – a modern building resting on 32 pillars, one for each of the 32 counties of Ireland. Today the shrine contains five sacred places: the Church of the Apparition, the parish church, the basilica, the Church of the Blessed Sacrament and the Chapel of Reconciliation.

[6] The Archbishop of Armagh is the primate of Ireland as the successor in the episcopal see of St. Patrick, the country’s patron.