Pope Francis has arrived in Ireland for the first papal visit to the country in nearly four decades.
The pontiff’s arrival at Dublin airport on Saturday comes amid declining religious observance in the traditionally Catholic country and anger over the Catholic Church’s record on tackling sexual abuse by priests.
When Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979, divorce and contraception were illegal in the country.
Pope Francis’ visit comes at the back of referendums, in which the Irish electorate overwhelmingly voted to legalise abortion and gay marriage.
Both are positions the Vaticanhas traditionally opposed.
“The Catholic Church is still very much part of our society but not at the centre of it as it was 40 years ago,” Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who became Ireland’s first gay leader last year, told the BBC in advance of the pope’s 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.”
Hundreds of thousands are set to greet the leader of world’s Catholics during his two-day visit.
Pope Francis met Varadkar in the capital Dublin. The Irish leader called the abuse scandal a “stain on the state” and called on the pontiff to do more in dealing with the abuse crisis.
The pope said he shared the outrage over the cover-up of “repugnant crimes” committed by clerics.
“I cannot fail to acknowledge the grave scandal caused in Ireland by the abuse of young people by members of the Church charged with responsibility for their protection and education,” Francis said in a speech at the state reception.
“The failure of ecclesiastical authorities – bishops, religious superiors, priests and others – adequately to address these repugnant crimes has rightly given rise to outrage and remains a source of pain and shame for the Catholic community.”
Ireland has one of the worst records for clerical sex abuse in the world, with more than 1,300 priests accused of sexual violence since 1975.
Al Jazeera’s Neave Barker, reporting from Dublin, said the visit was a moment of great celebration for many but also “consternation” for others.
“The appeal, the power, and the draw of the Catholic Church in Ireland has waned in recent years. But I think it would be wrong to say that this is a post-Catholic country,” he said.
“The last religious census in 2016 suggested that more than 70 percent of Ireland identified itself as Catholic, while 40 percent go to church on a regular basis.”
Barker said that while many had renounced the faith, others saw the Catholic religion as part of the culture of the country.
Paddy Agnew, a Dublin-based journalist , said the sex abuse scandal was a problem which is doing Pope Francis and the Catholic Church “a great deal of damage”.
“But for him to come up with a plan to deal with this problem, it requires a fundamental reassessment of basic Catholic Church teaching … and I dont think they want to go there,” Agnew told Al Jazeera.
“He is not going to even begin to attempt to change fundamentally the Catholic doctrine … the message the church is teaching is the same,” he added.
|Protesters demonstrate on the Ha’Penny Bridge in Dublin during Pope Francis’ visit [Hannah McKay/Reuters]