Pope Francis is due to visit Ireland in August 2018. His trip will probably include a historic journey north of the border. But what he is likely to find is that Irish Catholicism remains in serious long-term decline. Years of scandal have led to dwindling congregations, an increasingly hostile public climate and a Church that seems to have no clear idea of how to turn its fortunes around.

Francis’s personal popularity and celebrity should draw substantial crowds. But enormous crowds turned out for Pope John Paul II on his 1979 visit, and what seemed to be an affirmation of Ireland’s Catholic identity proved in retrospect to be the last hurrah of old-style Irish Catholicism.

This papal visit will be following more than 20 years of decline. The last three Irish cardinals – Cahal Daly, Desmond Connell and Seán Brady – have all been tarnished by proximity to clerical abuse scandals. The widely respected abuse survivor Marie Collins has recently resigned from the papal commission designed to tackle the subject. And there are fresh stories emerging about Dickensian conditions in Church-run homes in the last century. Mass attendance is extremely low, compared to the past, and the number of active priests may now be below 2,000.

The situation has been complicated by clerical politics, both local and Roman. Most significantly, the papal nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown, was recently removed from his post and appointed to the relative backwater of Albania. The position of nuncio has long been controversial in Ireland, reflecting the Irish hierarchy’s historic independence from Rome. Archbishop Gaetano Alibrandi, nuncio between 1969 and 1989, was disliked by much of the Irish clerical and political establishment – which were more closely connected then than they are now – both for his pro-nationalist approach to Northern Ireland and the appointment of a number of bishops who were not the favoured candidates of the local hierarchy.

Archbishop Brown was subject to hostile briefing from the moment of his appointment in 2011. This focused on his background as an official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and his closeness to Benedict XVI. The American was often depicted as an enforcer who was trying to impose an ultra-conservative line on the Irish Church, though there was little evidence of this.

Tellingly, though, the most specific complaint was that bishops appointed during his tenure had come from outside the dioceses they were to take over. In other words, he had been disrupting the local cliques who were used to being able to put their candidates in place.

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