When the Bishop of Meath, Dr Michael Smith, meets Pope Francis after the pontiff celebrates Mass for the World Meeting of Families (WMOF) in the Phoenix Park next Sunday, he will be doing so as the longest serving member of the Irish hierarchy.
The Pope’s visit comes just a week before the Oldcastle native attends the ordination of his successor, Canon Tom Deenihan, at the Diocesan Cathedral in Mullingar.
As the 2018 papal visit is very much a Dublin-focused operation for the WMOF, the Irish bishops don’t have a huge involvement in it, but Bishop Smith was a key figure in the previous papal visit, and can look back on his experiences of six of Pope Francis’ predecessors since his time as a student in Rome in 1960s.
“Of course, the Pope I met most often was Pope John Paul II,” Bishop Smith recalled this week at Bishop’s House in Mullingar.
He was secretary of the co-ordinating committee that organised the papal visit to Ireland in 1979.
“We met over dinner in Castel Gandolfo - Cardinal O Fiaich, Archbishop Ryan, Archbishop Daly, and myself, as the Pope wanted to work out the whole thing in his mind, the framework for the visit, and the background to it.”
A visit to the Archdiocese of Armagh and the seat of the primate of All-Ireland was on the agenda, but the killing of Lord Louis Mountbatten by the IRA, and the death of 17 British soldiers at Warrenpoint on the same day, put paid to that.
“The Pope was still mad keen to go, but the problem of the security implications had to be taken into consideration - we had to convince him that those travelling to the North to see him would be at risk,” Bishop Smith said.
“A lot of work had been done discreetly on the ground and unofficilly before that, as the North was on the itinerary.”
Drogheda, been the southerly most point of the Archdiocese of Armagh, was then chosen, and Pope John Paul made a plea for peace at the Mass there, highlighting the association with St Oliver Plunkett, himself a defender of the oppressed and advocate of justice who never condoned violence.
In 1979, the visit was bigger because of the several different parts of the country to be visited.
“The basic principle was to provide an opportunity for as many as possible to join the Pope in prayer,” he explains.
“The biggest difference between then and now is health and safety,” he continues. “One person did die in the Phoenix Park - and two babies were born, I believe. St Mary’s Hospital in the Park was the emergency unit.”
Bishop Smith describes it as something of an “urban myth” that the Catholic Church had more influence in Ireland in 1979 than it does in 2018.
“I think that influence is a sort of an exaggeration that people like to trade on,” he says.
“There is still a very deep faith.”
And he says he is not so sure that this new “progressive and sophisticated Ireland” is working out.
“There are an awful lot of challenges there, particularly for the young people. We don’t seem to be able to cope, we’re possibly corrupting a whole generation of young people.”
He says that the big multinationals don’t seem to worry too much about that, and while they may be bringing a lot of money and a lot of taxes into the country, the legacy they might leave ..... is already visible when visiting schools, not just in the children but in the environments the children are growing up in. It’s throwing up a substantial number of problems.”
He believes the country has become greedier, and less safe, from the time he was growing up and you could leave the door of the house unlocked all night.
“There’s a whole change in attitudes and values in relation to honesty,” he believes.
“For instance, in the courts system, I’ve never been in favour of swearing an oath on the Bible, as so much perjury is committed in courts.”
The Bishop agrees that the misdemeanours on the parts of priests in relation to abuse has left a terrible legacy and a blight on all the lives.
“Those lives were blighted without people being aware of it - and it was not confined to church personnel, it was very widespread in society, and maybe in the perspective of time, and when people look back on the focus on the church and church personnel, it will have the effect of a conscientizationing people into a realisation that there is a serious issue in society that doesn’t seem to be going away.”
He says that Tusla are still finding it impossible to cope.
Bishop Smith describes dealing with the abuse allegations and their impact on victims as the low point of his time as bishop.
One of the positives of his time as bishop has been the major change in the provision of schools in the diocese, and the investment by successive governments in education.
“In fairness to all governments, they invested heavily in schools and there isn’t a primary or secondary school in the diocese that hasn’t been replaced,” he says.
The rolling out of Eucharistic Adoration across the diocese and the involvement of lay people in this is also a positive, and it has been taken on board by other dioceses.
He is looking forward, at 78 years of age, to handing over the crozier to Tom Deenihan, who has been dividing his time between Cork, where he is diocesan secetary, and his new diocese of Meath.
The Corkman will be ordained in the Cathedral of Christ the King on 2nd September.
Bishop Smith is moving to a smaller house in Mullingar, where he “might be tempted to write” of his experiences of Vatican II, the council called by Pope John XXIII. Bishop Smith was ordained a priest on 9th March 1963 by Cardinal Traglia at the Lateran Basilica the Pope’s Cathedral in Rome. He celebrated his First Mass on 10th March 1963 in the Clementine Chapel, located under the main altar at St Peter’s Basilica.
The young priest remained in Rome until December 1966, before returning home to the diocese. During that time, he served with the Secretariat of the Second Vatican Council and completed a doctorate in Canon Law.