Alf McCreary: How charisma of Pope Francis may pave way for future papal visit here
In this first weekend of August it is timely to remind ourselves that we are about to witness one of the most important events in Irish Church history.
This will be the visit to Dublin by Pope Francis at the end of this month to preside at the World Meeting of Families.
The Irish Church has done well to attract it to the Republic, and by all accounts the omens are good. The attendance of individuals and families from all over the world looks like creating a new record for this event.
It is encouraging that the Protestant churches in Ireland have warmly welcomed the visit as a family event with a broad appeal, and it is likely that the main Protestant leaders will meet Pope Francis during the visit.
When Pope John Paul II came here nearly 40 years ago there was widespread enthusiasm from all quarters, including among many Northerners, though the Reverend Ian Paisley, the then-Moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church, remained totally opposed to the visit.
Incidentally he showed the same opposition to the visit of Pope Benedict to the UK many years later, and it is an historical curiosity that Ian Paisley who seemed to liberalise his politics remained so relentlessly opposed to the Catholic Church.
Even when the former Primate Cardinal Sean Brady was invited to the opening night of the General Assembly in Belfast some years ago as the personal guest of the incoming Moderator, the Very Reverend Dr Ken Newell, Ian Paisley senior, despite advancing age, still led a circle of grim-faced Free Presbyterians to protest outside Church House in Fisherwick Place.
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The late Ian Paisley knew only too well how to create headlines, but one wonders what he would make of the headlines being created today.
No doubt there are still those up here who are resolutely opposed to any Pope, wherever he appears, but I believe that there is a majority in Northern Ireland who wish Pope Francis well, and regret that he is not coming among us.
It is distinctly possible that, being a man with his own strong convictions, Pope Francis will have something meaningful to say about Northern Ireland, from his Dublin base, and he may well pave the way for a long overdue papal visit here.
People may overlook, however, that at 81 he has reached a considerable age, and that all such visits require enormous stamina.
I am told on good authority that every phase and step of this Pope's visit has been measured in detail by Vatican officials in terms of the distance he may have to walk, stairs to climb and speeches to make.
Whatever he does and wherever he goes, the Pope's visit will be scrutinised by a huge media attendance. The power of communications is such today that the visit of any world figure, including Pope Francis, can be brought to the intimacy of our homes in a way that was not possible for previous generations.
The choreography, which the Vatican does well, will be impressive, but what in real terms will the visit achieve? Especially when one bears in mind that in the media age, big stories often fade away quickly in the public's appetite for fresh news.
In one sense the visit of Pope Francis will be important in placing a much-needed focus on the importance of family life, at a time when the old stability of the 'nuclear' family is being threatened by vast social change, not all for the better.
People also forget that Pope Francis is a considerable philosopher in his own right, and that when he speaks people do pay attention.
His visit will also be an encouragement to the Irish Catholic Church which has had, and is still having, huge problems over clerical child abuse.
Indeed, the Primate Archbishop Eamon Martin, who is relatively young, has told me that this cloud will hang over the Irish Church for the rest of his ministry.
After the Pope leaves, the Irish Church will still have its challenges but people of goodwill will look forward to an historic visit which comes only once in a generation. An added bonus is that Pope Francis has his own charisma.
We can perhaps expect the unexpected only three weeks from now.