Page last updated at 12:32 GMT, Sunday, 21 March 2010

Mass-goers react to pastoral letter

St Malachy's Catholic Church in Alfred Street dates back 165 years.
Mass-goers at St Malachy's in Belfast received a two-page summary of the pastoral letter

By Ruth McDonald
BBC News

At nine-thirty Mass in St Malachy's Church in the centre of Belfast, all the pews are full.

The bright, newly-renovated church is usually a busy one.

During the week it attracts office workers to its lunchtime Masses; at the weekends shoppers and city centre parishioners come to pray.

This Sunday seems no different to any other.

Everything is as it usually is; people smile and greet each other when they come in, parents whisper to their children to keep quiet, coins clink gently into collection boxes, and the low murmur of prayer seems to reach up to very the top of the high church ceiling.

It is a scene being replicated in every Catholic church across the island of Ireland.

But there's something extra this weekend. Mass-goers have all been given a short, two-page summary of Pope Benedict's Pastoral Letter.

Some glance at it during the service, some tuck it away in a handbag or pocket to read later.

Most, I notice, take it with them. Very few copies are left behind when the Mass ends.

Many who attended the half past nine service, of course, had an idea of the letter's contents already.

Since its release on Saturday by the Vatican, it's been comprehensively dissected in the newspapers and over the airwaves.

The papal letter has been long-awaited by many in Ireland; both by clerics and congregations.

Pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland
Priests read the pastoral letter to congregations on Saturday and Sunday

Since the publication of the Ryan Report, which laid bare the culture of cover-up and secrecy in the Dublin diocese, the Catholic Church's reputation has taken a battering.

One morning mass-goer, a man in his 50s, had already seen the letter.

"I thought it was very subtle and direct and made the point and pointed the finger where it had to be pointed," he said.

"It's not a tabloid we are reading, it's a very serious document and it has to be very subtle. I think it was meaningful and significant."

But most people hadn't read the letter and weren't aware of what it said.

They would read it later, they said, as they hurried down the church steps to get home.

"It's very good that he (the Pope) came out and apologised," one elderly man said.

"I think that's enough. I haven't read the letter yet... I think it should all be laid to rest now and that's it."

Joe and Betty are both 68 years old. They stand in the spring sunshine outside the church, chatting to friends and catching up on news after Mass; coming here is a social as well as a religious ritual for them.

Their home parish is nearby, they travel to St Malachy's to "get the early Mass".

They have been weekly church-goers all their lives. Joe admits they have never experienced anything like this before as Catholics.

But it hasn't shaken their faith.

"Behind the scenes it was known," Joe said.

"It's time something was done about it."

Laughingly, they admit they are relieved the entire letter - which runs to 13 pages - wasn't read out in church as it would have taken too long.

Much better, they agree, to be able to take it home and read it at leisure.

So at some stage, maybe whenever household chores are done, dinners cooked and eaten and Sunday newspapers finally finished, Joe, Betty, and the rest of Ireland's Catholics will sit down with Pope Benedict's letter to them and make up their own minds about it.

Does it answer their questions?

If their faith or respect for their Church has taken a battering over the past while, will it be restored?

The Vatican hopes it will lay fears to rest, and show the Pope's concern for those who have been abused, and the wider community of Catholics in Ireland.

But whether it will go far enough to salvage the damaged reputation of a church in grave difficulty remains to be seen.

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