Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar says he is glad Catholic leaders have a less dominant role in Irish public life and hopes Pope Francis’ visit will mark a new chapter for relations between the Church and the country.
“I think in the past the Catholic Church had too much of a dominant place in our society,” he told the BBC. "I think it still has a place in our society but not one that determines public policy or determines our laws.”
Mr Varadkar, the country’s first openly gay Taoiseach, said his predecessors regularly consulted the bishops on a wide range of public policy issues such as the health service, but that no longer happened.
"We do have a church-state dialogue that involves other churches as well and other faiths other than Christian faiths too,” he explained.
The Pope flies to Ireland tomorrow for a 36-hour visit where he will attend the World Meeting of Families in Dublin and visit the Marian shrine of Knock, in County Mayo.
Straight after his arrival, Francis will be taken to the residence of the Irish President, Michael Higgins, before heading to Dublin Castle where he and the Taoiseach will deliver speeches and then meet privately.
When their meeting takes place, Mr Varadkar has indicated he plans to raise the issue of gay marriage, same-sex families and the Church’s involvement in the Magdalene laundries: the mother-and-baby homes which were rife with sexual and physical abuse.
He said the Pope’s time in Ireland was the moment to speak directly to the women and children who were harmed by the past crimes that took place in church-run institutions.
“It is an opportunity for him to say something to the women and children in particular who were victims of the church's institutions do to reiterate the apologies that he's given in the past but also to demonstrate that things are going to change into the future,” said Mr Varadkar.
"I also think it's an opportunity for us as a republic for us as the Irish state to start a new chapter in our relationship with the church one that again is very much about having a place for the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland but not one at the centre in the way it was in the past."
The Taoiseach described the papal visit as one of the most significant events in Ireland in the past 40 years, although Francis will find a very different country to the one that welcomed John Paul II in 1979.
Back then, 90 percent of the country attended Mass weekly while more than one million attended the papal liturgy in Phoenix Park, the largest gathering of people in Irish history.
About half that number is expected on Sunday when Francis celebrates Mass in the same spot, and since John Paul II’s visit the country has gone on to legalise divorce, same-sex marriage and voted in favour of allowing abortion.
The clerical sexual abuse crisis in the country has severely damaged the Church's moral authority, and the ongoing global scandal of abuse threatens to overshadow Francis’ trip.
During his time in Ireland, the Pope will not visit Northern Ireland, although Mr Varadkar hoped that this would happen at some point in the future.
John Paul II had to cancel his visit to the north in 1979 after the murder of Lord Mountbatten, a cousin of Her Majesty the Queen, by the IRA – leaving Northern Ireland as the only part of western Europe that no Pope has visited.
"We had hoped that it would be possible for him to go to Northern Ireland on this occasion," the Taoiseach said. "It wasn't, for various reasons, and I would certainly like that to happen in the future, for him to bring a message of peace and a message of reconciliation to the north not possible on this occasion."
He added: "Hopefully it will be in the future."
In the Vatican, the possibility of a Northern Ireland visit has not been ruled out: Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Holy See’s foreign minister, told an Irish newspaper earlier this month that "it could come as a part of a visit to the United Kingdom".
Christopher Lamb will be travelling to Ireland with Pope Francis on board the papal plane, while Sarah Mac Donald is on the ground covering events on the ground in Dublin. There will be rolling coverage of the visit on www.thetablet.co.uk
The Tablet at WMOF2018
The Tablet is at the World Meeting of Families. Come and say "hello" – the main exhibition area - stand 91