The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who was born in 1979 the year of the last papal visit to Ireland, used the reception for the Pontiff at Dublin Castle to call for a new relationship between the country, its people, and the Catholic Church in what many hailed as the speech of his career.
While acknowledging the Church’s contribution to laying the groundwork for education and health care in Ireland – when the State had none of its own – he said the time had come when the Catholic Church could no longer be the centre of Irish society or wield the disproportionate influence it once did.
Mr Varadkar’s carefully crafted speech was wide-ranging and acknowledged the Church’s contributions as well as its failings.
His aides stressed he wrote it himself and had spent much of the summer preparing it. He acknowledged the shared culpability of Irish society and the Church for some of the darkest aspects of the Catholic church’s history in Ireland and referred to the shocking disclosures from Pennsylvania last month of years of clerical abuse and cover-ups by the Church.
A grand jury there found that 300 priests had abused more than 1,000 children since the 1940s. The Pennsylvania scandal was “all too tragically familiar here in Ireland”, he told Pope Francis.
Above all, said Mr Varadkar, the Ireland of today is “increasingly diverse” compared to the Ireland of 1979 and notions of families – headed by divorced or same sex couples or grandparents or single parents – and of women’s rights are very, very different to back then.
Ireland had voted to “modernise its laws” on abortion and same-sex marriage, he said. “One in six of us were not born here, and there are more and more people who adhere to other faiths, or who are comfortable in declaring that they subscribe to no organised religion.
“We have voted in our parliament and by referendum to modernise our laws – understanding that marriages do not always work, that women should make their own decisions, and that families come in many forms including those headed by a grandparent, lone parent or same-sex parents or parents who are divorced.
“The time has now come for us to build a new relationship between Church and State in Ireland – a new covenant for the 21st Century,” he said.
He told Pope Francis he hoped his visit represented the beginning of that “new chapter in the relationship between Ireland and the Catholic Church.”
“Learning from our shared mistakes, it can be one in which religion is no longer at the centre of our society, but in which it still has an important place.
“One with greater diversity and choice when it comes to the patronage of our schools – and where publicly-funded hospitals are imbued with a civic and scientific ethos.
“Ireland is a different country than it was 39 years ago.
“Modern Ireland is still a country with faith and spirit and values.
“Family, community, enterprise, social justice, diversity, openness and internationalism, equality before the law, and individual liberty – these values describe the Republic we aspire to be.
“Your visit has caused many of us to reflect further and more deeply on the relationship between Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church, a faith brought to Ireland centuries ago. He spoke also of the Church and the Irish state’s shared history of “sorrow and shame” over Magdalene Laundries, Mother and Baby Homes, industrial schools, illegal adoptions and clerical child abuse.
“In place of Christian charity, forgiveness and compassion, far too often there was judgement, severity and cruelty, in particular, towards women and children and those on the margins.
“Magdalene Laundries, Mother and Baby Homes, industrial schools, illegal adoptions and clerical child abuse are stains on our State, our society and also the Catholic Church.
“Wounds are still open and there is much to be done to bring about justice and truth and healing for victims and survivors. He said Church and State and wider society created a bitter and broken heritage for so many, leaving a legacy of pain and suffering “and a history of sorrow and shame”.
Mr Varadkar said the values of Christianity are woven through the ideals of the State of Ireland and its role as a modern country in a wider Europe and in the global community: “The Christian faith inspired many of the people, Catholic and Protestant, who led our campaigns for freedom and independence.
“Both the 1916 Proclamation of Independence and the Constitution invoke God in their opening lines,” he said.
Mr Varadkar continued: “Family, community, enterprise, social justice, diversity, openness and internationalism, equality before the law, and individual liberty — these values describe the Republic we aspire to be.”
He paid tribute to the many people of profound Christian faith (who) provided education to our children when the State did not, in the open air next to hedgerows and in the schools and educational institutions they built. “They founded our oldest hospitals, staffed them, and provided welfare for so many of our people.
“It is easy to forget that the Irish State, founded in 1922, did not set up a Department of Health or a Department of Social Welfare until 1947.
“These are now our two largest and best funded Government Departments accounting for more than half of Government spending between them today. “Providing healthcare, education and welfare is now considered a core function of our State. When the State was founded, it was not.
“The Catholic Church filled that gap… we remain profoundly grateful for that contribution.”
You may also be interested in: