When I watch Pope Francis in America this week I think of the transformed world he has inherited. And I think of how Ireland has been transformed too.Wikicommons

We spent most of the morning looking up at the sky. Is he up there somewhere among all those heavy gray rainclouds, we wondered? Is he on his way to us, all 450,000 of us, standing here expectantly in these saturated County Mayo fields?

It was September 30, 1979 and the pope was making his first visit to Ireland. The country was electrified by his presence among us.

Well, we were at first. All morning, tens of thousands of us had waited in the wet fields around Knock shrine and by noon we were starting to grow restive. “Is he on his way at all?” someone groused. “Ach, it’s going to pour again,” added another.

About twenty feet away, I watched a man with a small radio lift up his hand and inform us he was still saying mass in Galway. “It’ll be a while yet, eat your sandwiches,” he said.

The pope had arrived in Ireland the day before and he had kissed the ground when he stepped off the plane. That moment made a lot of older people weep. “Sure isn't he devoted to us to do the like of that,” they reasoned. We were not given to grand theatrical gestures, but we could be moved by them, and very deeply, it turned out.

Cameras and reporters followed him everywhere. On TV hypnotized ministers' wives in Chanel suits were filmed falling over themselves to bow and curtsy. It was as though The Beatles and Jesus had arrived to play a concert. It was mass hysteria; it was unprecedented. It was morning in Ireland.

Well, it was at first. It was raining again in Mayo and we were perished with the cold. All morning we had shivered on the slow bus down from Donegal, watching the tiny raindrops drifting slowly across the windowpanes.

I was in a Boy Scout troop that day and the journey had seemed endless to me. It took us an hour to park in the fields outside Knock village and then another hour to find our spot in a roped off bog overlooking the basilica.

“We’ll need binoculars to see him from here,” one of the boys said. “No, we’ll need a binoculars attached to a telescope,” another countered.

It was such a strange and unearthly place, Knock, a tiny Connaught village surrounded by land unaltered since the ice age. And there in the middle of all the heather and stones rose up a great, improbable white cathedral. It looked like a majestic ocean liner that had run aground in a bog. It looked ridiculous.

Not for the first time, I was baffled by my countrymen. Why had they taken us to this rain-soaked field, where there was nothing to do but stand up to our knees in yellow gorse and mud? What was religion that it could make people behave like this?

The point in Dublin airport where Pope John Paul II first stepped on Irish soil. Image: Wikicommons.

The point in Dublin airport where Pope John Paul II first stepped on Irish soil. Image: Wikicommons.

And what possible benefit could there be in this weird assembly? What did they think would occur? I looked around me with my mouth slightly open, dumbstruck, unable to make sense of what I was seeing.

A fleet of nuns dressed entirely in white from head to foot passed by, looking like celestial nurses. Four of them carried a large statue of Mary, an ideal of virginal motherhood that was an unresolvable paradox, which meant it was completely unattainable, so it was never addressed.

Behind the nuns, elderly heavy-set ladies in commodious raincoats carried their large purses and walked slowly and deliberately as if their feet were a source of torment. Their dark suit and tie-wearing husbands scowled beside them, holding on to plastic rosary beads, their blank expressions suggesting they had never known contentment in their lives.

Piety often looked like contempt to me. I could not understand devotion to a faith that made people look and feel this uncomfortable.

There was a lot to take in. In the days before the papal visit, some enterprising farmers had built latrines by digging trenches in the ground near a copse of trees, then running long wooden boards across the pit on which you had to stand to do your business.

A gray tarp sheet hid your shame from the hordes of onlookers. They charged ten pence to use these medieval facilities and it was a perilous enterprise from start to finish – one false step and you could tumble in.

Treading on those groaning boards made me so anxious I couldn’t do what I had paid for. So I stepped out moments later, feeling anger at the theft.

Looking back at all those rudimentary trenches and the hordes of saturated Irish men waiting to use them gave me an involuntary image of the Somme. All that was missing was some mustard gas and a land mine, I thought. I didn't know it yet, but I had taken my first steps away from Catholicism and its stern God.

The Papal Cross in Phoenix Park. Image: jaqian/Flickr

The Papal Cross in Phoenix Park. Image: jaqian/Flickr

Later in the afternoon, I saw the papal helicopter swoop overhead causing a tremendous cheer to go up. At last, he had reached us. Bishops and Cardinals began addressing the crowds like early warm-up acts until eventually, we heard the Count Dracula intonations of Pope John Paul II himself.

He was indoors inside the cathedral for most of the visit and it was clear from his pronouncements that English was not his second or even third language. He was haltingly slow at the microphone. Hearing but unable to see him I found that after a minute I had to struggle to listen to another word.

But it was the aftermath that really did it for me. Night fell quickly and we walked and walked back to the faraway buses among hordes of my silent countrymen.

All the jubilation was gone, drained by the weather and the long wait, and it was replaced now by the much more familiar Irish resolve to get through the road ahead and the coming night.

We walked and walked in the falling darkness, mostly unspeaking, eager to be in our own homes.

In my troop in the weeks that followed it became a popular game to mock his I Want To Bite Your Neck accent. “Young people hoff Ireland, I luff yoo...” we joked, quoting him. Then we waved our imaginary capes like vampires and blessed each other.

The Church didn't mean to, but that papal visit had drawn a line under the theocracy that we were and the progressive democracy we would become. We had all taken the journey to Oz together and the truth is we had been fatally underwhelmed by the Wizard. Things started accelerating and changing the moment his plane was airborne.

When I watch Pope Francis in America this week, I think of the transformed world he has inherited. And I think of how Ireland has been transformed too. The truth is the societies of old men at the Vatican have less and less to say to modern life and the world is moving on without them.

Francis knows this and wants to march toward the future, but his predecessor John Paul II only wanted to march us into the past.

I was in Dublin this May when the result of the marriage referendum was read out to the nation. The arrows that went up in Knock finally came down in Dublin Castle. And unlike that Knock visit, this time I saw the deep and unadulterated joy of my countrymen all around me.

We had stopped looking up at the sky and instead we looked to each other.