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In advance of Pope Francis’s visit to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families, I was invited by the Little Museum of Dublin to give a lecture on what may have changed in the 39 years since Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1979.

You could easily conclude that almost everything has changed, what with the collapse of the Church’s authority and the country's descent into materialism—which culminated in the recent referendum results approving abortion and gay marriage. But, delving into it, I came to the conclusion that all these factors have a common root, which I elaborated using Romano Guardini’s description, in The End of the Modern World, of the religious sensibility of the Middle Ages. Guardini wrote that the Middle Ages were:

Filled with a sense of religion that was as deep as it was rich, as strong as it was delicate, as firm in its grasp of principles as it was original and fertile in their concrete expression. From cloister and monastery there shone a religious light whose strength cannot be overestimated. We cannot exaggerate the impact which was made on the corporate consciousness by the ever-fresh stream of worshippers, penitents and mystics which poured forth from the springs of medieval piety. From all these sources of faith tumbled the waters of religious experience, wisdom and certitude which constantly freshened and quickened every class and degree of society.

Medieval man “thirsted for truth,” which he found by adhering to the authority of Scripture, Church, and inherited wisdom; by meditating on the nature of reality; and by reading the symbolism of the world in terms not just of the appearance of things but also of “their own other side”—understandings that crept into art and the customs and speech of everyday life. 

I recognize something of this in my childhood memories of Ireland in the 1960s and for a time beyond. In an era in which it was not so easy as it is nowadays to hide from the pure nature of reality, each person’s “equation” of reality contained brackets in which a factor allowing for the computation of the unknown or unknowable was implicit and very close to consciousness.  You might call the contents of these brackets something like the “Mystery Parenthesis.” They were certain ineluctable truths: that man had not made himself so someone/something else must have; that the unique centrality of every human consciousness had a significance never elaborated outside the religious texts; that man did not seem to belong in the world but to be exiled in it; that these and other questions vital to man’s self-understanding needed to be embraced by the individual imagination, and could not be avoided simply because they seemed rationally unanswerable. Thus, a consciousness of transcendence was built into everyday culture, so that each person could not only access the mysteries of his own existence but could communicate with others about these as a matter of course.  

In Ireland, what existed of these conditions had arrived already contaminated as a consequence of historical misadventure: The excessive emotionalism and moralism of bad education and simplistic preaching had rendered Christ as a big-brotherly moral policeman. The role of “moral governance” forced upon the Irish Church before and after independence had reduced Christianity to rules, simple pieties, and a nineteenth-century form of identity politics. Yet, in what is condescendingly called the “simple faith” of our immediate ancestors, there was a strong and functional element of transcendent connectivity that met their needs and served its purpose in its time. 

Oddly, it was improving education that further contaminated this consciousness of transcendence. The adapted English education system separated the world into constituent “subjects” and destroyed the totalizing understanding of Christianity by treating Christ as a magical figure in history, who thereby became implausible alongside other historical figures.  This happened in varying ways almost everywhere, as Pope Benedict outlined in his scintillating speech in the Bundestag in September 2011. There he described the “bunker” that modern man had built for himself to live in. In the bunker, reality was reduced to parts that man had himself constructed, so that man asserted his omnipotence and omniscience in what seemed to be the whole of reality. But modern man remained secure and confident in his self-given purpose only for as long as he could remain within his own constructs. His best hope of coherence lay in distraction: money, intoxicants, sensations, false ideas of freedom, and cultures renovated to minimize human exposure to the Absolute. 

It is no more than axiomatic that Pope John Paul II’s 1979 visit to Ireland briefly reversed these new conditions, returning us to an earlier state—though only for a short time. In Dublin’s Phoenix Park, as though to generate a symbol of this restoration of the Mystery Parenthesis, a temporary city was built. The construction of a Holy City for the pope and his people to meet in amounted to the temporary deconstruction of the bunker for as long as that city would endure.

There was something almost sacramental about the intensity of the preparations, both in intentionality and execution. Two years later, John Paul II would issue his seventh encyclical, Laborem Exercens, in which he reminded us that Jesus had become a carpenter and described work as a process that transcends its objectives to become itself a good for man’s total functioning. 

The gathering in Phoenix Park was the largest gathering in Europe since World War II. Adding the 250,000 who saw the pope in Drogheda and the 250,000 at the youth Mass in Galway, 20,000 at Clonmacnoise, 450,000 at Knock, 50,000 at Maynooth, 400,000 at Limerick, and the smaller crowds that greeted the pope along the way, it was estimated that perhaps 2.5 million people—or half the island's population—had seen Pope John Paul in person over those three days of intense excitement and emotion.

The pope’s speeches in Ireland might be attributed a single common theme: the evils of materialism. Not just materialism in the sense of obsession with money and consumerism, but also the downstream consequences of such obsessions, when the concepts of materialism infect mankind’s own sense of itself. When this happens it obviously impedes the emergence of a sensibility in which Mystery is self-evident to man, for in ceasing to see the Mystery of himself, man ceases to be capable of grasping any concept of mystery at all. 

It would not be an exaggeration to say that John Paul II’s visit was the last memorable occasion when a form of Catholicism appeared to embrace virtually the entire population of Ireland. Shortly after his departure, the Church fell apart, and Irish society “matured” into new understandings. 

I, being agnostic at the time, was among the half of the population that did not turn out for JPII. I was awake to the greatness of this still-new pope, but this awareness was insufficient to persuade me to join the celebrations.  At the time, I was a roadie with a pop band, and on the night of the Phoenix Park event we had a gig in Derry—that most Catholic of cities on the northern side of the border. On the way back to Dublin in the early hours, we met at least 10,000 cars on their way home from the pope’s gig. In all my life I have never experienced such an intense feeling of being an outsider as I did on that journey. 

It might appear that once the pope got on the plane for Boston, the unraveling of Christian Ireland began. But in my mature assessment, Irish Christianity was already dying when John Paul arrived. Indeed it was reported in advance that the Vatican was aware of a shift in Irish religious patterns, identifying the development of a ritual religiosity that would in time prove too weak to overcome the advance of aggressive secularism. 

The moment the pope’s plane took off from Shannon was perhaps the last moment there was something in our collective equation to signify the totality of human possibility, the last time we had at the heart of our culture a Mystery Parenthesis. And the greatest tragedy is that, whereas we imagine that absence to signify an expansion of our intelligence—an advancing rationalism to suit the modern age—it betokens, in truth, a failure of imagination.  

Eventually, the exodus from and repudiation of the Church would be explained by dint of the alibis provided for church-related scandal—easy rationalizations by which a culture ostensibly vibrant in its faith and practice explained away a far more complex disillusionment nestling like an undiagnosed cancer in the gut of Irish society. 

The escalating Irish difficulty with “the faith” is not that we no longer wish to believe in God or even that we are incapable of trusting Christ’s Church, but that our culture no longer supports any intelligence of the transcendent. Faith survives, of course, in pockets and individual hearts, and its rituals will continue within the buildings designated for that purpose, but its demonstration or articulation has become all but impossible in the secular public realm. 

The pope safely departed, the local church fell into spouting its usual platitudes. The logic of man-constructed reality reasserted itself. From lunchtime that October 1, we went back to getting our truths from the likes of disc-jockeys. Life continued to be as challenging, baffling, and terrorizing as before. Those three days of 1979 came to be looked back upon as a time-out from reality rather than incursion into the deeper nature of things. You might call it a kind of spiritual blow-out: Once the hangover wore off, the Irish quietly—wordlessly—resolved not to get waylaid again.

John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of nine books, and a playwright.

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