There was no surprise at this week’s confirmation from Rome that Pope Francis will visit Ireland in August. It had been well flagged in advance that the Pope would be the chief guest at the World Meeting of Families.
However most people were greatly surprised that he will not be coming to Northern Ireland in a visit that historically would complete the visit of Pope John Paul II nearly 40 years ago.
John Paul II was prevented from coming north because of the dire security situation, and this grieved him greatly.
I was told this by the Pope’s secretary on the eve of John Paul’s funeral in Rome, which I covered for this newspaper, as well as his visit to Knock.
I was also told in Rome by the then Primate Archbishop Sean Brady that the Irish hierarchy were extremely keen on a Papal visit to Ireland because of the personal connection with John Paul II.
The invitation from the Irish hierarchy remained on the table and their patience was rewarded when Pope Francis availed of the opportunity of the World Meeting of Families in Dublin to make a long-awaited visit.
However the Vatican, with typical lack of explanation, has not told us why Pope Francis is not coming to Northern Ireland.
Is it because of pressure of other business, or a wariness to become involved in the complex local situation, or because of the disgraceful Catholic clergy child abuse scandals?
Perhaps we will never know, even if it would be courteous of the Vatican to tell us why. Or will he visit us after all, at short notice, in order to minimise any northern opposition to a visit?
If the Pope does not set foot in Northern Ireland, which now seems extremely likely to be the case, it will be a badly missed opportunity.
Armagh, not Dublin, is the place where Patrick founded the Irish Church, and the symbolism of the Pope going there would have been inescapable. It would also have symbolised a hands-across-the-border gesture of friendship to all the faithful Catholics and Protestants at a time when political relations between the two parts of the island are frosty.
One of the crumbs of comfort from this week’s Vatican announcement was the way in which the Pope’s visit to Dublin has been warmly welcomed by Protestant churches and individuals in the north.
The Presbyterian Church, which already showed its support for the visit, was quick off the mark this week. Its Clerk of the General Assembly, the Rev Trevor Gribben, said that the Pope’s visit to the World Meeting of Families would “greatly enhance the affirmation of the place of the family at the heart of society, and that is to be welcomed”.
This showed commendable leadership in stating firmly the Presbyterians’ welcome for the visit. It will make it easier for the new Moderator and/or the Rev Gribben to take up an invitation to meet the Pope in Dublin, which is sure to be forthcoming.
During John Paul II’s visit, a previous Presbyterian Clerk, the Rev Jack Weir, faced criticism for meeting the Pope. However, Jack, who was a towering visionary in Presbyterianism, handled it with typical courage and aplomb.
It has been said many times that Pope Francis will come to a very different Ireland than the one which welcomed John Paul II in 1979.This is now a multi-cultural Ireland which has legalised same-sex marriage and which may well have virtual abortion on demand after this May’s referendum.
The 2016 Census for the Republic also underlines the dramatic reduction since 2011 in the number of people who describe themselves as ‘Catholic’, from 3,831,187 in 2011 to 3,696,644 in 2016 — a drop of 134,543 in five years.
In the same period, the number of people describing themselves as ‘lapsed Catholics’ rose from 1,268 to 8,094, and the number who stated ‘no religion’ rose from 256,830 to 451,941.
One hopes that the visit by Pope Francis will give an incentive to what used to be ‘Holy Catholic Ireland’, but which it clearly is not to the same extent today.
The disappointment remains that he has not indicated any intention to come to Northern Ireland. It really is a glaring omission.