Challenges for Church as it clears the first hurdle ahead of Pope's Irish visit

By: Sarah MacDonald - Irish Independent | Posted on: 15 July 2017

The arrival of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, head of the Catholic Church in Austria, this week was an important marker.

It was the first big warm-up for the Irish faithful in the year-long build up to the World Meeting of Families in August next year - or the anticipated visit of Pope Francis.

But at the conference at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, there was little giveaway on the Pope's plans from a member of his select inner circle of advisers. Admitting that he was not privy to "these secrets", he said the Vatican would publish the programme of papal journeys at the beginning of 2017.

Cardinal Schönborn is the person chosen to present Pope Francis's exhortation on marriage and the family - the 'Amoris Laetitia'.

As the son of a divorced couple, he knows only too well the difficulties of marriage breakdown for all concerned.

He was appointed a bishop by Pope John Paul II and he is now one of Pope Francis's most trusted advisers. If there is such a thing as church royalty, he is it.

So, his trip to Ireland was an important prelude to what is expected next year. Presuming Pope Francis arrives in Ireland next August, there are plenty of challenges on the road ahead.

First of all, there is no guarantee the reception for the Pontiff will be all that warm. There are a lot fewer practising Catholics than there were even 20 years ago.

There is also plenty of residual popular anger over the clerical and institutional abuse scandals.

As the row over St Vincent's Hospital and ownership of the National Maternity Hospital showed, these shameful episodes can come back to haunt the Church and swing any debate. The battle lines on abortion and denominational education are also currently being drawn up.

The campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment is likely to be in full swing when the papal visit is taking place.

Then there is the Education Minister's stated aim of removing the so-called 'baptism barrier', and the implied threat this potentially represents to Catholic education, which has already stirred up debate here.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin warned in his address in Germany last week that though the political relationship between the Church and State in Ireland today is "one of prudent distance", there is a growing number of vocal supporters of a much more hostile relationship between Church and State, particularly in relation to education. Cardinal Schönborn acknowledged this in Limerick.

"We need words of consolation.

"Many are discouraged because society is becoming often hostile to the Church but also because of our own misbehaviour," he said.

"It's a great burden that we cannot overcome unless we accept truth, even if it's painful truth, and clearly stand on the side of the victims."

Perhaps Pope Francis could help ensure Irish society is not left reeling for decades by these raw and fractious debates.