Why, in what its Taoiseach has described as a post-Catholic country, is the Papal mass in Phoenix Park a sell-out? The answer seems to be that Pope Francis is more popular than his religion.
Since the pontificate of St John Paul, whose rock star quality was undeniable, a principal function of the office has been to travel the world seeking adulation. This is dangerous, not only because it permits off-the-cuff interviews in aeroplanes, but because a Pope who is more popular than the religion he represents stands in a strange relationship to doctrine.
Francis, in part at least, is popular because he is perceived to be intent on changing doctrine. His popularity is rooted in those who are uneasy with the teachings of the church, and prefer virtue signalling about the refugee crisis and global warming.
The danger is that a Pope who begins to enjoy that popularity (surrounded by courtiers who equivalently benefit from it) will inevitably be tempted to play to the gallery. He will grow to think that he can do what he wants, and will convince himself, on the grounds of his success with the media and the uncommitted, that it is for the good of the Church. Even that it is a form of evangelisation.
I fear that we may have reached that point with Francis.
Behind the adulation of John Paul lay a substantial intellectual legacy. The Theology of the Body (even though in its English translation it often reads as though it had been beamed down from planet Mitteleuropa) is an innovative and telling vindication of the Church’s perennial teaching. Despite PR attempts to portray Francis as an intellectual, it does not seem that the same can be said of him.
The danger is that, buoyed on the froth of popularity without substance, he may do considerable damage.