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Changed attitudes to papal visit refreshing

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 29/11/2016

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

The news that Pope Francis will visit Ireland in August 2018 has been warmly welcomed on both sides of the border.

The big question now is whether or not the pontiff will come to Armagh, historically the seat of St Patrick since ancient times.

It is refreshing to note the warmth in which the news has been welcomed by key figures in Northern Ireland.

First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster was quick to make clear that she would be prepared to meet him in his capacity as a Head of State.

It is good to see Mrs Foster acting as a First Minister for all the people.

This is indeed a long way from the attitude of the DUP some 40 years ago, when its then leader the Rev Ian Paisley went out of his way to object to the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland.

Much has changed since then.

Ireland is less of a "confessional" State, and has undergone vast social and cultural change, including the legalisation of same-sex marriages.

The Roman Catholic Church has also changed greatly.

The steeply declining attendance figures at Catholic services show the public disillusion with an organisation that failed to protect vulnerable children.

The hurt caused by the clerical child sex abuse scandal still runs deep, and the Church has still much to do to win back trust.

There has been sadness also that Pope John Paul II was unable to cross the border in 1979, and the expected visit of Pope Francis to Armagh will certainly complete some historically important unfinished business.

Many Catholics in the north, as elsewhere, will look forward to his visit, but so too will Christians of other denominations and people of other faiths.

Despite the shortcomings of organised religion, there is still a noticeable bedrock of ecumenism in Ireland, north and south.

This is partly due to the recognition by nearly all Christians that they need to draw closer in a secular world that, at times, seems unnecessarily hostile to people of faith.

There is much goodwill around the world for Pope Francis, who is a charismatic figure, and clearly a very good human being. At this time there is every reason to hope that he will receive a warm welcome from all sides in Northern Ireland, and that he will be given his proper place as a major world faith leader.

Belfast Telegraph

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