Although his visit will draw vast crowds, Ireland is no longer the Catholic stronghold it once was. His visit will be marked by abuse protests that would have been unthinkable at Pope John Paul II's visit.
Pope Francis is coming to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families, and the Emerald Isle has come down with Pope fever. A large part of central Dublin has been cordoned off, and 600,000 people are expected at the papal Mass on Sunday in Phoenix Park, the biggest city park in Europe.
But although thousands have traveled to see him, Ireland is no longer the Catholic stronghold in the Atlantic that it once was. The World Meeting of Families began in the Convention Centre Dublin on Tuesday, but the latest reports about the abuse scandals in the Catholic Church in the US state of Pennsylvania — and, of course, in Ireland itself — hover like a dark cloud above it.
"The Pope is doing his best to address the controversies that continue to grip his Church," says Milena Pereira. The 20-year-old Catholic has traveled to Ireland from Portugal. She's hopeful there will be reform — that the Pope will appoint like-minded people to high office, resulting in gradual progress. "If he is there for another five years, I think we will have a different church," she says.
In 1979, when Pope John Paul II visited Ireland, it was still staunchly Catholic. One-and-a-half million people thronged Phoenix Park for the Mass. Back then it would have been sacrilege to protest the Pope's visit.
There certainly are protests today, though. The Dublin city councilor Mannix Flynn, for example, has put up an art installation in the form of a "distress call" in the Dublin entertainment district of Temple Bar. Nine wooden boards detail the ordeals of children who were raped by priests. Flynn himself was one of these children. He was raped for the first time when he was 11. "We do not want prayers or sympathy," he says. "We want people arrested and those who covered it up at least held accountable in court."
The downfall of the Catholic Church in Ireland began in the 1990s, when the first abuse scandals involving Catholic priests came to light. The beginning was comparatively innocuous: In 1992 it became known that the Bishop of Galway, Eamon Casey, had a 17-year-old son. Casey resigned his office over the scandal and went to South America as a missionary.
Read more: Pope vows no more sexual abuse cover-ups
Believers turning their backs
However, this was followed by a slew of reports about sexual abuse in Catholic schools, children's homes and other institutions. The Irish public were appalled. Many finally turned their backs on the Church after an inquiry established that senior figures in the Church had protected these priests and transferred them to other dioceses, where they were able to do more harm. Between 2005 and 2011 the number of churchgoers dropped by 20 percent.
Since then, the Catholic Church has lost a great deal of influence, not only as a moral authority but also as a political force. Despite vehement opposition from the Church, in May 2015 Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by referendum, with an overwhelming majority. This in a country where homosexuality was only decriminalized in 1993.
Within a single generation Ireland has transformed from a rigidly conservative country to an extremely liberal one. The Church clearly doesn't want to accept this: In January, five photos of same-sex couples were removed from the brochure for the World Meeting of Families.
In May 2018 the last bastion of Catholicism, the ban on abortion, also fell, with a surprising two-thirds majority voting to overturn it. After the referendum the Bishop of Kilmore, Leo O'Reilly, commented that the Irish were now merely "cultural Catholics rather than Catholics by conviction." He declared that Ireland was now "mission territory," and expressed his regret that Francis would find Ireland a very different country to the one Pope John Paul II visited in 1979.
Colm O'Gorman, the executive director of Amnesty International Ireland, was 13 years old at the time. He was an altar boy, and sang in the church choir every Sunday. "I was heavily involved in the Church," he says. "I didn't get to see Pope John Paul II when he was here. My older sister and brother did, and I remember envying them."
O'Gorman watched the Pope's visit on television, and was delighted when John Paul II told 300,000 young people in Galway in the west of Ireland: "Young people of Ireland, I love you!" Just over a year later O'Gorman was raped by a priest for the first time.
"That priest had been ordained just four months before the visit, and the Church knew then that he was a child abuser," he says. "But the Church made him a priest, and then sent him off and let him abuse for years with impunity." O'Gorman was almost destroyed by the experience. His message for Pope Francis is clear: "Tell the truth. Admit the cover-up. Please."