DUBLIN — An international conference celebrating Roman Catholicism opened Sunday in Ireland against a backdrop of anger over child abuse cover-ups and evidence of declining faith in core church beliefs.
About 12,000 Catholics, many from overseas, gathered for an open-air Mass in a half-full Dublin stadium at the start of the Eucharistic Congress, a weeklong event organized by the Vatican every four years in a different part of the world. The global gathering, begun in the 19th century and last held in Quebec in 2008, highlights the Catholic Church's belief in transubstantiation, the idea that bread and wine transforms during Mass into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ.
An opinion poll of Irish Catholics found that two-thirds of Irish Catholics don't believe this, nor do they attend Mass weekly. The survey, published in The Irish Times with an error margin of 3 points, also found that just 38 percent believe Ireland today would be in worse shape without its dominant church. And just three-fifths even knew the Eucharistic Congress was coming to Ireland.
Such views reflect rapid secularization and alienation with the church in Ireland, where church and state once were tightly intertwined. The last time Ireland hosted the Eucharistic Congress in 1932, more than 1 million – a quarter of Ireland's population – packed Dublin's Phoenix Park for Mass with nary a dissenting voice.
This time, Ireland's opening soccer match Sunday in the European Championship is dominating public attention and excitement. So much so that the congress blog had to point out to visitors that all the Irish flags on display on buildings, shops and taxis represented excitement about the football, not the faith.
And as Catholic pilgrims entered the opening Mass, they passed protesters from Survivors of Child Abuse, an Irish pressure group that has spent more than a decade demanding that church leaders in Ireland and Rome admit their full culpability for the protection of pedophile priests. Other protest groups highlighted the church's opposition to homosexuality and its role in running most Irish elementary schools and many hospitals today.
Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, president of the Eucharistic Congress and the Irish church's leading voice calling for greater openness on past abuse, led a moment of silence inside the Royal Dublin Society Arena dedicated to those unknown tens of thousands of children molested or raped by priests.
Martin said the Irish church had harbored "a darker side of sinful and criminal abuse and neglect of those weakest in our society: children, who should have been the object of the greatest care and support and Christ-like love."
"We recall all those who suffered abuse, who still today bear the mark of that abuse and may well carry it with them for the rest of their lives. In a spirit of repentance, let us remember each of them in the silence of our hearts," he said in calling for prayers.
Sunday's ceremonies also featured the unveiling of a symbolic "healing stone" with a poem written by a victim of a pedophile priest.
Earlier, Martin said the church in Ireland was facing its gravest fight for survival since the early 19th century, when British laws that barred Irish Catholics from political power were still in force.
"The church is in crisis in Ireland, and that crisis is very, very deep," he said. "But ... we're turning the corner to be a very different church to the one we were. The difference will be reflected perhaps in the Eucharistic Congress. It won't resemble the 1932 congress in any way."
Eighty years ago, Ireland had been independent of Britain for less than a decade. Historians credit the 1932 Eucharistic Congress, with its huge crowds and a Dublin Bay filled with ocean liners bearing overseas pilgrims, as the ultimate expression of how Catholicism served as the central pillar of Irish nationalism.
But since the early 1990s the church's standing in society has been battered by a series of scandals involving the church's concealment of child-abuse crimes from police and other Irish authorities. Four state-ordered investigations over the past decade have documented how tens of thousands of children from the 1940s to 1990s suffered sexual, physical and mental abuse from priests, nuns and church staff in three Irish dioceses and in a network of workhouse-style residential schools. More investigations of other dioceses beckon.
"The return of the Eucharistic Congress offers an escape from the trauma of a decade in which the moral standing of the institutional church has been ravaged by its systematic collusion with the abuse of children," The Irish Times said in its lead editorial. It said the church in Ireland would never return to "the triumphalist Catholicism of 1932. That world is dead."
50th International Eucharistic Congress, http://www.iec2012.ie/