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Why Pope will be welcomed to Northern Ireland by all people of faith - even if his message falls on deaf liberal ears

Christian Churches find common ground as they come under attack from so-called 'progressives', writes Gail Walker

Published 29/11/2016

Pope Francis exchanges gifts with Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny during a private audience in his private studio at the Vatican, Monday, Nov. 28, 2016.
Pope Francis exchanges gifts with Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny during a private audience in his private studio at the Vatican, Monday, Nov. 28, 2016.

The call at the weekend by Rev John Dunlop for the invitation to Pope Francis to visit Ireland in 2018 to be extended to Northern Ireland and for Protestant Churches here to engage positively with that visit, without caution, should it occur, will be met with the customary variety of responses in meeting house, hall, tent and church in Ulster.

That the attitude of this former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church hasn't yet been picked up by his brethren has perhaps as much to do with his own reputation as a liberal as it has to do with the forum where he aired his views - Radio Ulster's Sunday Sequence. Neither Dr Dunlop nor the BBC would be expected to give the Pope a roasting on a Sunday morning.

But few in fact nowadays could doubt the wisdom of the cleric's advice, if not always for obvious reasons.

First Minister Arlene Foster has stated she would meet the Pontiff were he to visit Northern Ireland and, in general terms, there is a societal consensus that Pope Francis is "a good thing".

There was plenty of rejoicing that this gentle elderly man succeeded to the chair of St Peter from the embattled poverty of Argentina, bringing an at times astonishing humility to what could often be a remote and forbidding role.

There was, for a time, the widespread belief that the Pope, or this one in particular, might not in fact be Catholic; or not as much a one as his two immediate predecessors, Benedict XVI and St John Paul II.

For that reason, this Pope might be welcomed to Northern Ireland as a new broom to clean out the stables of a church still stained with the scandals of the last 10 years.

Couple that with wider society's exhaustion with decades and generations of doctrinal nit-picking and ear-splitting hollering at best, and nasty and murderous sectarian hatred at worst, and the appeal to wilder versions of Protestant feeling and belief to welcome something for a change would always expect to be received warmly in self-styled progressive quarters.

Of course, all that is to mask one of the most noticeable cultural shifts of the last 10 years - the simple fact that our society has become more anti-Catholic, not less.

Neither of the two main parties which would have been seen as representing the votes of the Catholic population can be said to represent the views of the Catholic Church, or even of mainstream Catholicism.

That is a very important difference between, for instance, how the SDLP would have positioned itself, say, even 15 years ago, and how it sees itself now. On a whole raft of social and moral issues, that party has shifted far to the Left of Church teaching.

Sinn Fein, of course, always had a more vexed relationship with the Catholic Church and its leaders, and that hasn't been cured by the party's distancing itself from militant republicanism, or its entry into government. If anything, Sinn Fein and the Catholic Church are farther apart on almost every issue than they have ever been.

Same-sex marriage, abortion, integrated education - on those fronts alone, Catholics have felt a general hostility from wider society, a disdain in the media, a sense of "open season" on those who hold beliefs contrary to accepted opinion.

It is hardly shocking to state that the moral teaching of the Catholic Church represents a position far removed from what our mainstream culture would regard as wholesome and good, by which we mean progressive, liberal and tolerant.

What is really surprising is just how much common ground over recent years the Christian Churches in Ireland have found with each other.

Mostly, of course, this has developed quietly and without fanfare - it hasn't been in anyone's interest, it seems, to explore the impacts that real persecution of Christian populations in the Middle East, perceived attacks on Christian iconography and symbolism in the Western media and a sense of erasure of Christian presence in the culture, from "Happy Holidays" to wearing crosses at work, have had on the sense of common good experienced by a new ecumenism built on shared adversity.

Force of circumstance has forged strange alliances in the Christian community in Northern Ireland over recent years. There was much solidarity in display over the Ashers bakery court case and cross-denominational positions on abortion in the cases of fatal foetal abnormality seem to have aligned in response to what many there see as a hostile and increasingly aggressive secular agenda being played out in the media and in Stormont.

The fact is that the old sectarian opposition of the traditional Churches has long given way to a sense of solidarity on the ground. In practically every town and village, there are strong links between the pastors of various denominations.

If you know anyone who is a church-goer, ask them about the visible presences that occur at Christmas and Easter, for example, between the ministers of one church and another.

Inter-denominational food banks, volunteer kitchens, prayer groups, choral sharing - yes, even parish buses to the Waterfront to support the Ashers campaign ... These initiatives are widespread and, this time, aren't prompted by a need to disarm ruthless paramilitary gangs at their business under the cover of religious faith, but rather by an acknowledgement that Christian groups per se are under siege from a non-believing, non-sympathetic wider culture.

This isn't about making the liberal classes feel better about our society. Or about cuddling up to the cultural Christians who like trudging through the snow to Christmas services, but don't credit the Virgin Birth, the Star and the Magi, who can believe in Calvary, but not the Empty Tomb, and all the other tales they are happy to tell their children ...

Nor is it about atoning for some long-held prejudice that Christian religious belief, somehow, was to blame for the IRA, discrimination, knee-capping, the Shankill Butchers, the border and the sinking of the Titanic. No. It is about the beginnings of fighting back against widespread cultural and social discrimination.

Moreover, there are very clear signs now, even in Northern Ireland, that non-Christian faiths are finding strange alliances forming as well between Muslims scandalised by secular attitudes and offensive talk, and Christian believers who find themselves becoming a minority in their own communities.

Interesting times, Dr Dunlop. One imagines Pope Francis will have plenty to say about the social relevance of the Gospel in Northern Ireland.

And it's unlikely to be what many opinion-formers of our day will want to hear.

Belfast Telegraph

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