Belfast Telegraph

Alf McCreary: If the Presbyterian Moderator can meet the Pope, why can't a senior DUP figure?

By Alf McCreary

Tomorrow I will be in Dublin to report on Pope Francis and the closing mass in Phoenix Park.

I have a special professional interest in attending, because I also covered the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland some 40 years ago. Papal visits are significant milestones in any reporter's career.

Would I go to Dublin if I was not reporting the event? Probably not, for practical reasons only, but I am aware of the magnitude of the event.

If I were the leader of the DUP, God forbid, would I meet the Pope? Most certainly, as it would be my duty to do so and to demonstrate leadership to the rest of the DUP, which claims to work for all people but has failed to take this opportunity to show generosity and vision.

Even worse, the DUP is not sending anyone to Dublin. This is an insult to the Roman Catholic population and a cynical calculation that they can brazen it out, knowing that their bigoted core voters will support them.

Can there be a more politically inept party? It is doing more to destabilise the Union than all the republicans, violent and peaceful, put together over the last 40 years.

However, the Presbyterian Church is sending its Moderator to a papal reception in Dublin Castle.

The first meeting between an Irish Presbyterian Moderator and a Pope on Irish soil is historically and symbolically important. The Presbyterians did not allow their Moderator to meet Pope John Paul II in Dublin in 1979, but the then Assembly Clerk, Dr Jack Weir, stepped out of line and went to Dublin anyway.

There was also uncertainty when Pope Benedict visited the UK in 2010. The then Moderator, the Very Rev Dr Norman Hamilton, attended an ecumenical Westminster Abbey service at which the Pope was present, but he did not meet him afterwards. However, the then Assembly Clerk, the Rev Donald Watts, met him in Scotland.

This time the somewhat tortuous Presbyterian on-off minuet with successive Popes was settled from the outset.

To the credit of the Assembly Clerk, the Rev Trevor Gribben, the Pope's visit was welcomed immediately and endorsed by the Church's large General Council, with only a few objections, which, I understand, were expressed graciously, though there are more robust objectors elsewhere within Presbyterianism.

It is fortunate that this year's Moderator, the Rt Rev Charles McMullen, also expressed his willingness to meet the Pope. This, of course, fits in well with this Moderator's theme of building relationships, though this has taken a Presbyterian battering in recent weeks, through no fault of his own. A less outgoing Moderator might have declined to attend, but the Church would have nominated another figure to go, with respect to Dr McMullen.

What is important is the fact that the Presbyterian Church, the largest Reformed Church in Northern Ireland, has approved of the visit, and this is significant in the current toxic atmosphere in so many areas of our public life.

In the run-up to the Pope's visit to Ireland, much attention has been paid so far, and rightly so, to the issue of the victims of clerical abuse.

At the time of writing, I don't know what the Pope will do or say about this during his visit, but everyone hopes he will leave a memorable legacy in dealing with this issue, which has caused so much pain.

Meanwhile, it is important to remember that the Pope's visit is also a confirmation of the commendable co-operation between the Catholic Church and the main Reformed Churches for many years.

It is a disgrace that our politicians have not managed to achieve this rapport, and it is sad that the DUP is still overshadowed by the late Ian Paisley's intense bigotry against Roman Catholicism, which predictably is still reflected in the Free Presbyterian Church.

As someone said on radio recently, "If the Moderator can go to meet the Pope, why can't a senior figure from the DUP do the same?"

The answer, most regrettably, is all too obvious.

Belfast Telegraph

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