Pope Francis arrived in Ireland on Saturday for a highly charged visit to a society transformed since the last papal trip 39 years ago and beset by the kind of abuse scandals that have mired the Catholic Church in crisis.
More than three-quarters of the Irish population flocked to see Pope John Paul II in 1979 at a time when divorce and contraception were illegal.
Today, Ireland is no longer staunchly Catholic and over the past three years, voters have approved abortion and gay marriage in referendums, defying the will of the Church.
Numbers lining the streets or joining Francis in prayer are expected to be about a quarter of the 2.7 million who greeted John Paul II, marking how the rock that was once Irish Catholicism has eroded since child abuse cases came to light in the 1990s.
“The Catholic Church is still very much part of our society but not at the center of it as it was 40 years ago,” Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who last year became Ireland’s first gay leader, told the BBC ahead of the visit.
“Ireland has become a very different place in the last 40 years and our relationship with the Church has changed principally because of so many revelations that have occurred around child sex abuse.”
The pope touched down in a sunny Dublin at 0926 GMT (5.26 a.m. ET) where he was greeted by Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, his children, who presented Francis with flowers, and a number of Irish bishops.
He will begin the two-day visit by meeting Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins and Varadkar, who has promised to challenge the pope to do more in dealing with the abuse crisis.
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