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A Reflection on Pope Francis’ Visit to Ireland

Posted by Erin Bechtol

By Mairead Maguire, Nobel Peace Laureate


Pope Francis’ two-day visit to Ireland on August 25-26th comes at a time when people need hope. The Irish Church has been devastated by the abuse scandals, which have never been properly dealt with. The victims and survivors of church abuse have told their stories and knocked on church doors trying to get a hearing. Only in the last few years has the Catholic hierarchy recognized that clerical abuse has taken place.

The pain, frustration and anger of so many victims has been allowed to fester while the perpetrators of these abuses have often been protected for fear of damage to the institution. As with all corruption, unless we go to the root of the problem and take positive action to root it out completely, we can never have true healing.

Into this situation of the pain and suffering of the victims of clerical sexual abuse, Pope Francis arrived. His plea for forgiveness for the abuse scandals was long overdue.

The Pope’s call for firm and decisive action will be followed closely by many. I would support the victims call for a tribunal to be set up by the Pope to judge the bishops’ action and make and hold the perpetrators of the abuse to full accountability, therefore demonstrating a commitment to full transparency.

So too the real reform of the Catholic Church can no longer be delayed. The renewal of the church will not be easy, but it can begin immediately with a holding of a third Vatican Council. Through respectful listening and deep dialogue, solutions to these urgent issues can be found and put into place. The abuse scandal in Ireland is only the tip of the iceberg. In many countries, human dignity is being destroyed through the abuse of children, women and men, as they are deprived of the basic needs to enable them to live fully human and dignified lives.

It was very symbolic that Pope Francis spoke from the Marion Shrine at Knock where the message of peace and nonviolence could have been proclaimed strongly. In Ireland, and throughout the world, people are looking for moral and spiritual leadership. Pope Francis gives hope when he speaks out against war and nuclear weapons and for peace and disarmament.

In 1978, Betty Williams and I had the privilege of a 30-minute private conversation with Pope John Paull II in the Vatican. Coming out of a violent conflict in Northern Ireland, we appealed to the Pope to reject the “Just War” theory and to bring forward a theology of nonviolence and peace for the Catholic Church. When Pope John Paul visited Ireland the following year he appealed to people to reject violence and build peace.

However, we still wait for the Vatican to publish an encyclical on Christian nonviolence which would reject “Just War” theology. Pope Francis has called for the total abolition of nuclear weapons and for just peacemaking. His visit to Knock, while rightly focusing on the church’s abuse scandals, was a missed opportunity. He should have also called for the abolition of war and militarism, and for the return to Gospel nonviolence.

I believe Christ’s message of nonviolence has been betrayed and perverted by the so-called “Just War” theology which has led to the blessing of armies, weapons, militarism and wars where millions have been killed.

I believe that when the church rejects the “Just War” theology and replaces it with a theology of nonviolence, then other things in the church will change. But if we do not as a Christian community teach nonviolence in our schools, colleges, seminaries, theology centers, churches, and homes, how will people learn to make the choice between violence and nonviolence? How can we prevent abuse, violence, or politically-driven deprivation and oppression, while the “just war” theory retains any credibility?

I am grateful for the visit of Pope Francis. His humility and love in speaking to the suffering of the victims and survivors has begun a healing process, and raised hope for a new beginning for many people.

I am also grateful for the Pope’s call to continue working for peace and in support of the Irish Peace Process. In his speeches, Pope Francis reminded us of our duty to protect the children from abuse. I believe the greatest abuse to millions of children is that of guns, militarism and war, and that if we want to end all abuse, we have to work for an end to all violence and war, for complete disarmament and global nonviolent conflict resolution.

In my opinion, an encyclical on nonviolence and disarmament from Pope Francis would give hope to us all and encourage us all to take up our responsibility to build a new culture of peace and nonviolence, not only in the Church and in Ireland, but throughout the whole world.


Mairead Maguire won the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for her leadership in stopping the Troubles in Northern Ireland. She was part of the recent Vatican Conference on Nonviolence, and is author of The Vision of Peace (edited by John Dear, Wipf and Stock Pub.) She lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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