The possibility of a papal visit to Ireland next year has heightened following Pope Benedict's announcement that Dublin will host the 50th International Eucharistic Congress in 2012.
The Pope's surprise selection of Dublin was broadcast live by telecast yesterday from Rome to pilgrims attending the final Mass of the 49th Congress in Quebec, Canada.
Although popes usually send special delegates to the congresses, which are held every four years, Pope Benedict's choice of Dublin has renewed expectations in Church circles that he will accept the invitation from the Irish bishops to come here next year.
Last night a high-level Church source told the Irish Independent that Pope Benedict's visit would give an enormous boost to the build-up for the congress, the first to be held in Ireland since 1932.
His visit would help the Irish Church's recovery after the revelations in recent years of the extent of clerical child sex abuse, especially if the Pontiff expressed sorrow as firmly as he did during his recent trip to the United States.
Hopes of Pope Benedict coming here in 2009, the 30th anniversary of the historic visit of Pope John Paul II, were kindled last January when the German Pontiff told Cardinal Sean Brady that he hoped to visit Ireland.
While no date has been fixed by the Vatican, Irish church sources last night predicted that the odds on a papal visit next year had shortened.
Welcoming the Pope's choice of Dublin for the 2012 Congress "on behalf of the Catholic faithful of Ireland," Cardinal Sean Brady and the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, said they were "honoured and humbled".
In a joint statement issued from Quebec, the two Church leaders said that the hosting of the congress in Dublin will attract thousands of pilgrims for the week-long event which they hope will help revive Catholicism in Ireland.
The two leaders invited parishes throughout Ireland to begin preparations for the Congress which they described as "an occasion which will enable Catholics at home and abroad to meet, pray together and discuss issues of faith".
"Over the next four years, parishes are invited to suggest how best to celebrate the 2012 Congress, the statement said.
While the congress theme has yet to be finalised, Cardinal Brady and Archbishop Martin said they were deeply conscious that 2012 also marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.
"The purpose of the congress is to deepen our knowledge of the Eucharist which in itself is central to our Catholic faith," they added.
Noting that this will be the second time that Dublin and Ireland will have hosted the event since its inauguration in 1881, Cardinal Brady and Archbishop Martin said that "it is our hope that the 2012 Congress will be an opportunity for the Catholic Church in Ireland to both reflect on the centrality of the Eucharist at the heart of our increasingly diverse community, and, to give renewed impetus to the living of faith".
The 1932 Congress was a landmark event in establishing the identity abroad of the Irish Free State, a decade after independence.
The climax saw one million people attend a Mass in the Phoenix Park which heard the tenor John McCormack's rendition of 'Panis Angelicus'.
Historians have defined it as an event which symbolised the bonding of Catholicism and Irish nationalism.