During Pope Francis’s visit to Ireland last weekend, comparisons were repeatedly drawn between the huge numbers who attended events at John Paul II’s visit in 1979, and the much more modest crowds for this visit in 2018.
But the comparison of the two papal occasions was rather shallow. The context was so different.
John Paul II was the first pope ever to set foot in Ireland, since St Patrick evangelised the island in the 5th century. It was an absolute first.
John Paul himself was the first Polish pope – the first pope, for centuries, not to be Italian – and already a giant on the international stage. As subsequent history would reveal, Karol Wojtyła played a key role in breaking communism, and ending the Cold War.
Moreover, the first person in any sphere is always accorded more attention than the second, and the same acclaim is seldom given to a sequel event as to an original. Who was the second person to conquer Everest, to swim the English Channel, to run a four-minute mile?
And we are, obviously, in entirely different times. Ireland has grown more secular – though 79 per cent of the people still describe themselves as Catholic in the latest census – with the attendant shifts in attitudes.
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