The Pope in Ireland: A Psychological Perspective on Irish Views of the Pope’s Heroic Status

Pope Francis, the 266th pope, current leader of the Catholic Church, and sovereign of Vatican City, visited the Republic of Ireland on the 25th of August 2018.  Approximately 130,000 people attended the formal papal gathering and Mass in Phoenix Park in the city of Dublin during his recent visit. In contrast, in 1979, approximately 1.25 million individuals attended the formal papal gathering and Mass with Pope John Paul II in the same location. During the most recent papal visit, many thousands of people also attended the Stand4Truth rally – with the intention of standing in solidarity with the victims of clerical child abuse, mother-and-baby homes[1]  and the [2]Magdalene laundries – which took place in Dublin and several other locations throughout the country.

Arguably, Irish society has changed in many ways since the last papal visit 39 years ago. The most publicised changes include the legalisation of divorce (1996) and same sex marriage (2015), and more recently, the removal of the Eighth Amendment from the Irish Constitution, permitting the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) to legislate for the regulation of termination of pregnancy (2018). The declining numbers attending the papal Mass and the organisation of counter movements during the pope’s visit (such as the Stand4Truth rally) may reflect changing attitudes in Irish society towards the pope and the Catholic Church.

In this article, we consider how perceptions of the current pope were represented in public discourse in the media in Ireland before and during the papal visit in 2018, and how these representations may further entrench “us” versus “them” attitudes regarding the Catholic Church in Ireland. We particularly evaluate representations of the pope as a heroic figure, and the associated psychological functions that people describe as a result of thinking of him in this way (see Kinsella, Ritchie & Igou, 2015a). Instances, where the pope is described in ways that demote him from heroic status, are also discussed. Finally, we explore representations of the Stand4Truth rally in the Irish media, where those individuals were depicted as heroic despite their standing in opposition to the visitation of the pope.

Lay Views about the Features and Functions of Heroes

Heroes and heroism have played important roles in societies throughout history, from figures in ancient mythology to political activists, whistleblowers, and religious figures (Campbell, 2004; Zimbardo, 2007). Over the past ten years, psychologists have begun to investigate the defining features and psychological functions served by heroes. Although the term hero has been described as “radically ambiguous” (Gill, 1996, p.98), more recently, the most prototypical features of heroes have been identified through an extensive examination of lay perceptions of heroes across 25 different countries and a range of psychological studies (Kinsella et al. 2015b). Interestingly, despite the variety of heroes that exist, most heroes are described in ways that are consistent with these prototypical features. The most central features of heroes identified include bravery, moral integrity, courageous, protecting, conviction, honesty, altruistic, self-sacrificing, selfless, determined, saves, inspiring and helpful. The peripheral features of heroes, identified in the same article, include proactive, strong, leader, compassionate, risk-taker, exceptional, humble, fearless, caring, powerful, intelligent, talented, and personable (Kinsella et al., 2015b). These peripheral features may not be the first characteristics that come to mind when thinking about a hero but these features do provide important information about the concept of a hero. These identified prototypical features help to us to better understand what is meant by the term “hero” in everyday usage.

Furthermore, an analysis of lay perspectives of heroes has identified three key social and psychological functions that heroes serve: enhancement, moral guidance, and protection (Kinsella et al., 2015a). As part of serving an enhancing function, heroes inspire, instill hope, motivate others and help people to feel increasingly positive and hopeful about the world. Secondly, heroes serve a moral modelling function by acting as agents of social justice, helping those less fortunate, and shifting the individual’s attention from the self to others. The third function of heroes identified is that of a protecting function where heroes are described as helping, guiding, proactively combating evil or danger, stopping the bad in humanity, and doing what no one else will.

Irish perceptions of Pope Francis depicted in the Media

In thinking about these features and functions of heroes, it is interesting to examine how Pope Francis was described in public discourse in Ireland in ways that portray him as a hero and in ways that demote him from heroic status. The Irish Times, one of Ireland’s main broadsheet newspapers, recently published an article highlighting the views of several people who planned on seeing the pope during his visit to Ireland. One of those interviewed told the newspaper that she hoped to “find solace” in Pope Francis’s words during his visit, while another stated she believed that the pope was “very progressive”. The pope is described positively in these statements, and certain attributes are highlighted that reflect heroic features and functions described by research (Kinsella et al 2015a, 2015b). For instance, in providing solace to others, the pope enhances people’s lives by increasing feelings of positivity. This statement also indicates that individuals expect to be consoled by Pope Francis’s words, suggesting that he plays a role in helping and guiding others. This is reminiscent of the protecting function that heroes serve according to lay perspectives. The pope is also described as “progressive”, suggesting he is considered an open-minded and forward-thinking individual. These qualities echo some of the peripheral characteristics of heroes described in research such as being a leader or a risk-taker (Kinsella et al., 2015b).

Neale Richmond, a Senator belonging to one of Ireland’s major political parties Fine Gael, also told the Irish Times that he loves what the pope “has to say about social justice and compassion.” The pope is an inspiration to Mr. Richmond in this way – a trait central to the hero concept. Pope Francis encourages others to focus their concerns away from the self and to think about those who may be at a disadvantage in society. By promoting morals and reminding people of compassion and what is good in the world, the pope provides a moral modelling function to individuals. In speaking of compassion and social justice, Pope Francis also demonstrates qualities that parallel the central and peripheral prototypical hero features identified by Kinsella et al. (2015b), such as being altruistic, selfless, compassionate, personable, caring, and showing moral integrity.

Part of Pope Francis’ visit also involved meeting with some of the survivors of clerical abuse and with those who have spent time in Catholic institutions such as mother-and-baby homes and Magdalene laundries. Clodagh Malone, who was born in a mother-and-baby home, was one of those present at this meeting which took place on the 25th of August. Of the pope, she said that “He listened. He answered” and that he showed “genuine interest” in the meeting. She then added that “He was very genuine. He recognised that we have suffered as survivors.” These statements suggest that these abuse victims are grateful that the pope listened to what they had to say. By describing the pope as “genuine” and “interested”, it suggests that Pope Francis cared about the abuse victims’ stories and acknowledged their suffering. These statements depict the pope in a caring and personable way – two prototypical features central to defining a hero.

The pope also helped instill hope in some during this meeting, which was highlighted in a statement by Paul Redmond, another survivor of clerical abuse:

I’m very hopeful that after all the years of talk from the church that Pope Francis might actually do something to really shift things forward,”

This statement reveals that the pope is regarded as proactive and willing to help others – prototypical hero features according to lay perspectives. Paul Redmond’s words suggest that Pope Francis provides an enhancing function by helping him to feel hopeful about the future.

There are clearly positive sentiments shared by many Irish people regarding the pope’s visit and he has been described in a heroic way in public discourse across many media outlets. However, the pope’s visit also instigated several nation-wide demonstrations and rallies which took place at the same time as the papal Mass. The Stand4Truth rally that took place in Dublin was the largest of the demonstrations organised, where thousands of people including survivors and their families walked from the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin to the site of the last Magdalene laundry which closed in 1996, in remembrance and support of victims of clerical abuse. This movement was organised by Colm O’Gorman, a survivor of clerical abuse and Chief Executive of Amnesty International in Ireland. O’Gorman gave his view of Pope Francis prior to his visit to Ireland:

I like and admire many of the things that Francis has to say on poverty, social inclusion and refugees. However, I think some of it is overstated. On abuse issues he has been shocking.”

Although the pope is described by O’Gorman as admirable in some respects, he is shocked at the way in which Pope Francis has tackled the issue of clerical abuse in Ireland. These abuse survivors have told O’Gorman that “They are feeling silenced again by the hype of this whole visit”. This sentiment of being “silenced” is a clear indication that the pope does not enhance the lives of survivors of clerical abuse, but rather leaves them feeling as though they have been forgotten or ignored. In this way, the pope has been described in a way that largely undermines his heroic status.

Although Pope Francis has issued several apologies regarding the anguish experienced by many individuals at the hands of the church, many do not believe he has done a satisfactory job in sufficiently addressing this issue during his visit to Ireland. This view is reflected in a political poll that was conducted by the Irish Times a day after the pope concluded his Irish visit. When asked if Pope Francis had gone far enough to address the issue of child sex abuse during his time in Ireland, 55% of the individuals polled did not think that he had adequately done so. There is a feeling shared by many individuals that the pope has failed to address how the Catholic Church plans to hold those who were responsible for clerical abuse and its cover up accountable for their actions. This is reflected in a statement by abuse survivor Margaret McGuckin:

We want the Bishops, Christian Brothers, nuns and anyone else who were involved in the abuse of children or covering up the abuse of children brought before the courts.

Revisiting lay conceptions of the prototypical features of heroes, two described features include protecting and being proactive. If abuse victims are feeling “silenced” by the pope’s visit, and if many Irish people believe that the pope did not go far enough to address the issue of clerical child abuse, it suggests that the pope has failed to protect clerical abuse victims from psychological distress and has not been proactive in setting a plan in place to hold those who were responsible for clerical abuse accountable for their actions. Once again, Pope Francis has been portrayed in an unheroic way.

Language used by demonstrators is divisive

Individuals in attendance at the Stand4Truth rally in Dublin also spoke about their views of the pope’s visit. Interestingly, their statements do not specifically depict the pope unheroically, but rather the language they use solidifies their status as members of a group – in particular, a group that opposes the Catholic Church. Instead of speaking about the heroic or unheroic features and functions of the pope, those who attended the event took the opportunity to voice their opinions on why they disagree with the actions of the Catholic Church and why it was important for them to show their support at the event. For instance, a 71-year-old man who was in attendance at the event told the online version of the Irish Independent, Ireland’s largest selling daily newspaper that:

I think the core of all belief is truth, justice, love and non-violence. All of those have been betrayed, as far as I’m concerned. That’s why I’m here.”

This statement is not solely directed at Pope Francis as an individual. A larger entity is being held responsible for betraying “truth, justice, love and non-violence” – the Catholic Church.

Another man who was also at the Stand4Truth event explained to his reasoning for attending:

We need to let people know we don’t stand for anything the Church does anymore.

Once again, the language used here is divisive. The demonstrators’ words have been used as a mechanism for enforcing the difference between themselves and the conduct of the Catholic Church. This is also relevant in the words of Colm O’Gorman who described the rally he had organised to the Irish Independent as “love in the face of deceit” – two very different words; “love” and “deceit” have been used to label the actions of each group. By showing their support at the Stand4Truth event and speaking out against the Catholic Church, the distinctions between these two groups have been reinforced by the demonstrators.

Arguably, we can explain this with reference to the social identity theory (Tajfel &Turner, 1979). By bringing attention to the dividing differences between themselves and the out-group, those who attended the Stand4Truth rally have displayed prototypical group behaviour. This in-group has socially compared themselves to the out-group, and brought attention to the negative characteristics of the out-group in order to display their identity as group members. Although the pope’s visit instigated the various Stand4Truth rallies throughout the country, attendance at these events may have also been used to reinforce the protestors’ sense of social identity, further entrenching “us vs them” attitudes and strengthening the divide between themselves and the Catholic Church.

Furthermore, in an opinion piece for Irish Central, an Irish digital media company catering to Irish-Americans and Irish diaspora, Irish Catholic Jean Farrell writes that she respects and admires Pope Francis and calls him a “humble” man. However, she states:

I believe in God and the goodness of God. I say my prayers every day. However, my belief in The Catholic Church has collapsed. As the pope is head of that organization I will not be attending the gatherings here in Ireland, as a protest.”

This again suggests that there are people that associate non-heroic qualities with the Catholic Church rather than with Pope Francis himself, and portray the Catholic Church as an out-group. To explain this from another perspective, consider Decter-Frain, Vanstone and Frimer (2016), who suggest that heroes symbolise the values of the group that they represent, but need not necessarily act on these values. According to this perspective, because Pope Francis is the head of the Catholic Church, he is a symbol of its values, even if he is not responsible for the failings of the church in the past. People associate unheroic qualities with the Catholic Church, which are in turn associated with Pope Francis as he is a symbol of the values of the social group that he represents.

 Stand4Truth Campaigners as Heroes

There are several ways in which those who attended the various aspects of the Stand4Truth rally are heroic themselves. They act as agents of social justice and serve a moral modelling function by standing in remembrance of victims of institutional abuse. Furthermore, by standing in opposition to the Catholic Church, the campaigners display characteristics such as bravery, courage, and determination – prototypical characteristics of heroes according to lay perspectives. Colm O’Gorman commented on the crowds that gathered for the Stand4Truth demonstration in Dublin:

The people who are turning up…it’s mindblowing. It’s wonderful. I mean, this is Ireland. It’s phenomenal.”

This statement suggests that the campaigners provide an enhancing function to people, helping others feel increasingly positive about humanity and about the world (Kinsella et al., 2015a). Lay perspectives also suggest that as part of a protecting function, heroes stop the bad in humanity and combat evil or danger. Arguably, the demonstrators are fulfilling this function by calling for all those guilty of clerical abuse or its subsequent cover-up to be held accountable for their actions.

Concluding Points

The diminishing numbers attending the formal papal gathering and Mass, and the crowds of people who demonstrated against Pope Francis’ visit suggest that Irish views of the pope and of the Catholic Church have changed since the last papal visit of 1979. This article aimed to evaluate Irish people’s perceptions of the pope by analysing discourse in Irish media before and during his visit. It was hoped that this analysis would particularly shed light on Irish views of the pope as an enduring heroic figure, and how depictions of the pope in the media might reflect prototypical features, and social and psychological functions of heroes identified in recent research (Kinsella et al., 2015a, 2015b). An analysis of the media indicated that not only do mixed representations of the pope exist in public discourse, but that these representations are often divisive in nature. We highlight how those who demonstrated against the pope’s visit use language to indicate and solidify their status as group members, and also how the pope is a symbol of the values of the Catholic Church, even though he may not consistently embody these values. Finally, we offered perspectives about the heroic features and functions of those individuals who attended the Stand4Truth rally.

This article reflects on how the pope and the Catholic Church have been portrayed in public discourse during Pope Francis’s 2018 visit, offering a psychological perspective on why the pope is perceived as either a hero or non-hero by different social groups. Overall, media representations of the pope during his Irish visit offer unique insights into how Irish society has changed over the past 39 years. Views held by Irish people about the heroic status of the pope and the role that the Catholic Church should play in Ireland are now much more mixed than was the norm in 1979. The concept of heroism has changed over time (Kinsella et al., 2015b), and it is possible that religious leaders are no longer the default heroes they may have once been in Irish society. This begs the question: Who are the heroes of modern Irish society? This article suggests that if we examine current perceptions of figures that have been commonly considered heroic by a society in the past, we not only get an interesting snapshot of the current societal climate, but we are given a crucial insight into how our societies have changed over time.

Written and researched by Ms. Chloe Carrick (BSc psychology student, University of Limerick) and Dr. Elaine L. Kinsella (Lecturer in Psychology, University of Limerick). 

Academic References

Decter-Frain, A., Vanstone, R., & Frimer, J.A. (2016). Why and How Groups Create Moral Heroes. In Allison, S. T., Goethals, G. R., & Kramer, R. M. (Eds.), Handbook of heroism and heroic leadership (pp. 120-133). Taylor & Francis.

Gill, C. (1996). Personality in Greek epic, tragedy and philosophy: The self in dialogue. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Kinsella, E. L., Ritchie, T. D., & Igou, E. R. (2015a). Zeroing in on heroes: A prototype analysis of hero features. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108, 114-127. doi: 10.1037/a0038463

Kinsella, E. L., Ritchie, T. D., & Igou, E. R. (2015b).  Lay perspectives on the social and psychological functions of heroes. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 130. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00130

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. The social psychology of intergroup relations, 33(47), 74.

Zimbardo, P. (2007). The Lucifer Effect. New York, NY: Random House.

 Media References

Farrell, J. (2018, August 21). No to Pope Francis – I am a devout Irish Catholic but refuse to see him in Ireland. Retrieved from

Fleming, D., Lynott, L., & O’Grady, S. (2018, August 26). ‘Love in the face of deceit’ – thousands turn out for protests over clerical abuse. Retrieved from

McAllister, E. (2018, August 26). Pope tells survivors those who cover-up abuse are ‘filth’. Retrieved from

McGreevy, R. (2018, August 25). Pope tells survivors that those who cover up abuse are ‘caca’. The Irish Times. Retrieved from

Moore, A., & Rogers, S. (2018, August 15). Clerical sex abuse victims ‘feeling silenced again by hype of visit’. Irish Examiner. Retrieved from

Pope, C. (2018, August 25). Why I’m going to see the pope: Four people explain the draw of the papal visit. The Irish Times. Retrieved from

Press Association. (2018, August 25). Protests against clerical child sex abuse held near Dublin Castle. Irish Examiner. Retrieved from

Update: Stand4Truth protesters walk to last Magdalene Laundry to close in Ireland to hold rally (2018, August 26), Irish Examiner. Retrieved from

[1] Catholic-run institutions which housed single mothers and their children up until the 1990s. These children were often placed into adoption or sold to other families deemed more suitable to raise the child. Mortality rates were high among babies and mothers in these homes and often those who died were buried in unmarked mass graves. The remains of hundreds of babies were recently discovered at the site of the former Tuam mother-and-baby home.

[2]   Catholic-run institutions for “fallen women” – women who were considered unfit for society, e.g. those who became pregnant out of marriage, were flirtatious, or were sexually abused. These women were forced to live and work in the laundries as a form of penance and were not allowed to leave voluntarily. The first opened in 1767 and the last closed in 1996.


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