Pope Francis addresses the opening of the World Meeting of Families 2018 in Dublin, Ireland, via video on Aug. 21, 2018. Pope Francis will attend the event this weekend. Photo by John McElroy on behalf of the WMOF 2018

Catholics seek encouragement as World Meeting of Families opens in Dublin

DUBLIN (RNS) – As 750,000 Catholics gather in Dublin for the start of the World Meeting of Families, the week is shaping up to bring an intense mix of joy, learning and even some sadness as the long shadow of the clergy sexual abuse crisis proves inescapable.

On the agenda of the triennial event, which began Tuesday (Aug. 21) and runs through Sunday, are workshops on topics ranging from domestic violence and migration to incarceration and personal technology. Capping the gathering will be weekend appearances by Pope Francis at a festival featuring personal testimonies and a closing Mass on Sunday.

“Families today face many challenges in their efforts to embody faithful love, to bring up children with sound values and to be a leaven of goodness, love and mutual concern in the larger community,” Pope Francis said Monday in a written statement to open the gathering. “I hope that this festival will be a source of renewed encouragement to families everywhere.”

But unofficial activities will bear echoes of last week’s Pennsylvania grand jury report, which alleged that more than 1,000 children had been abused by upwards of 300 priests over a 70-year period. Francis is expected to meet privately with select abuse survivors during the gathering. A solidarity-with-victims event, led by prominent abuse survivor and activist Colm O’Gorman, is planned to happen concurrently with the pope’s Sunday Mass.

By meeting in Ireland, Catholics are brushing up against a surrounding culture that’s become less shaped by Catholicism in recent years. A landslide referendum earlier this year legalized abortion in Ireland despite opposition from the church.

This week, the church is getting pushback once again from local critics incensed by clergy sexual abuse.

“If an international organization covered up child abuse, moved abusers around and denied justice to victims, its leader should be detained by the authorities upon arrival at the airport. Not given a warm welcome at a cost of €32 million to ordinary people,” Irish journalist and blogger Ciaran Tierney tweeted a few days ago.

American church leaders will have prominent roles at the World Meeting even as they face renewed scrutiny back home in connection with the sexual abuse crisis. But an appearance by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, has been canceled. Wuerl, who is under fire for his role in the mishandling of allegations while he was in Pennsylvania, had been scheduled to give the keynote speech Wednesday.

Cardinal Blase Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, will lead a session titled “The Dignity and Beauty of Sexual Love: Finding New Language for Ancient Truths.”

Meanwhile, the Rev. James Martin, editor at large of America magazine and author of “Building a Bridge,” will discuss “Showing Welcome and Respect in our Parishes for ‘LGBT’ People and their Families.”