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DUP MP's views on papal visit to Northern Ireland are very welcome and show just how far we've come since 1979

Pope Francis

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson's comments on the proposed visit by Pope Francis to Northern Ireland next year is one glaring example of the changed society that the head of the Catholic Church will find compared to the visit to Ireland by Pope John Paul II in 1979 when security issues, and the threat of Protestant protests, meant he did not cross the border.

The DUP MP's belief that there will be no significant protests next year and his comment that he wants to hear what Pope Francis has to say on the moral issues of the day - presumably same-sex marriage and abortion are top of the list - was a statesmanlike response and has been deservedly given a broad welcome.

It is also recognition that the Christian Churches here have forged closer relationships, particularly at parish level, in recent years with greater tolerance and understanding of each other's theological position.

When Pope John Paul II came to Ireland some 2.5 million people attended various services at which he officiated throughout the Republic. There will be careful scrutiny of the numbers next year, as all the statistics show that secularism is becoming more prevalent. Polls show weekly attendance at Mass, for example, has fallen from 91% in 1972 to 30% in 2011.

The Republic has also introduced legislation allowing same-sex marriage, and a referendum on liberalising abortion will be held - and probably passed - just weeks before the papal visit.

Sex scandals involving clergy and the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar five years ago after she was refused an abortion have led to a questioning of the Church's teachings.

Nevertheless, a visit by the pontiff will still be widely welcomed on both sides of the border, but to an increasing number of Catholics it appears his moral authority has less relevance.

It would be ironic indeed if the Pope's traditional views on same-sex marriage and abortion gain equal welcome in Northern Ireland from conservative Catholics and Protestants like Sir Jeffrey and his DUP colleagues.

Belfast Telegraph