Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: It's a shame that the Pope will not visit Northern Ireland

Editor's Viewpoint

The widespread speculation of a papal visit to Ireland this year has proved correct, but it appears that Pope Francis will not be crossing the border into Northern Ireland. The only details yet released about his two-day visit in August reveal a Festival of Families ceremony in Croke Park on the first day and Mass in Phoenix Park the next day.

It is disappointing that the pontiff will not be coming to the province. Armagh had been mooted as an ideal destination, being the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland and containing two cathedrals representing the two main denominations here.

When Pope John Paul II (now Saint John Paul) came to Ireland in 1979, he was unable to travel north because of security concerns, but he had hoped to come back to Ireland at a later date. However, that was not to be. It was felt that a visit by Pope Francis would be the opportunity to complete that papal journey.

While disappointed, the faithful - and many non-Catholics - will welcome Pope Francis to Ireland. He is a head of state as well as the head of the Catholic Church and it would be fitting if an invitation to meet him was extended to representatives of unionism - and taken up.

No doubt, he has been well briefed that the Republic of Ireland today is a far cry from the one Pope John Paul II came to almost 40 years ago.

Then, what many would see as progressive voices, were scarcely heard. But today, the Republic has introduced same-sex marriages and a month before the papal visit will hold a referendum which could lead to the introduction of relatively liberal abortion legislation.

Pope Francis will also realise that clerical sex scandals, which are still being revealed, have severely dented the authority of the church in Ireland. While Catholicism remains the overwhelmingly largest Christian denomination, church attendances have slumped alarmingly and vocations to the priesthood are at an all-time low.

It is also notable that in advance of August's World Meeting of Families, the Association of Catholic Priests has queried why two references to non-traditional families, including LGBT households, have been dropped from official material.

There will be keen interest in the Pope's comments on modern family life and the increasingly secular society which has developed, even in Ireland. The big question is whether his visit will stop the drift from the church.

Belfast Telegraph

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