Belfast Telegraph

Queen greeting the Pope at Hillsborough Castle would be moment of seismic proportions

The leaders of the Church of England and the Catholic Church could be headed for an historic meeting in Northern Ireland next August, writes Martin O'Brien

They don't come bigger than the Pope - particularly when you consider that a successor to St Peter has never visited Northern Ireland. And, of course, any visit would be against the background of the burden of history from King Henry VIII's split with Rome over his annulment request around the time of the Reformation, to anti-Catholic hysteria arising from Titus Oates and the Popish plot to assassinate King Charles II that never was and subsequent centuries of prejudice, mistrust and misunderstanding.

Consider, also, Ian Paisley's denunciation of "Popery" and "the Anti-Christ" in Rome itself in the Sixties and in the European Parliament in the presence of Pope St John Paul in the Eighties.

Plus, the fact that the Troubles, more specifically security concerns following the assassination of Lord Mountbatten, prevented Pope John Paul from coming here on the only other papal visit to Ireland in 1979.

So, you can see that a visit by Pope Francis - who has won over hearts wherever he has gone - to a Northern Ireland still struggling to be remotely at peace with itself after decades of violent conflict that left thousands dead and so many unhealed wounds would be one of the biggest stories here since this part of the UK was founded almost 100 years ago.

We can be sure his every move would be beamed continuously on news channels and on web streams in every continent.

Oh, and, by the way, if the Pope - 81 last Sunday - does come (and, on balance, it is more likely than not that he will, health permitting), it will be in late-August towards the end of our often-fraught marching season, around the time of 'Black Saturday', when the Royal Black Preceptory have their last big day out of the year.

Between now and any official announcement confirming an Irish visit, which, on recent Vatican form on foreign trips to sensitive places could be several months away, it is likely there will be many stories of a speculative nature.

And, if he is coming north, we may not know his schedule until two months before he arrives.

A complicating factor is the acute political uncertainty here, with nobody knowing whether power-sharing will be restored in the foreseeable future.

There is no shortage of places with claims for a visit from the Pope during what would be likely a brief trip to Northern Ireland, with Armagh's two cathedrals and Downpatrick perhaps topping the list; and Belfast's Clonard Monastery - "the cradle of the peace process" - and the peace wall behind it also in possible contention.

The other day, Q Radio reported that the Queen would welcome the Pope to Northern Ireland, a development that would grab unprecedented world attention and confound fundamentalist Protestant monarchists planning to protest at any visit by a Pope. Q Radio may be on to something here and their story should not be dismissed as fanciful - even if it may not happen in the end.

Last year, a very influential senior Whitehall official, an English person who knows about these things, spoke to me privately of their wish for the Queen to welcome the Pope at Hillsborough Castle, her official residence here.

"It would be a potent symbol of reconciliation in a divided place," said my informant.

In case you have come to the story late, all this talk about a papal visit has arisen because, in September 2015, at the close of the Catholic Church's World Meeting of Families (WMOF) in Philadelphia, Pope Francis announced that the next WMOF, now dubbed 'WMOF2018', would be held in Dublin in 2018.

And, in May 2016, he said that WMOF2018 would take place from August 22 to 26 and that the theme would be 'The Gospel of the Family: Joy for the World'.

The Pope does not always attend the WMOF, which is really a big religious festival that has been held every three years since 1994 to celebrate family life and promote the pastoral care of families. Pope John Paul, then in poor health, missed out Manila in 2003 and Pope Benedict XVI skipped Mexico City in 2009.

Just over a year ago, at the end of November 2016, Pope Francis granted a 20-minute audience to Enda Kenny in the Vatican and the then-Taoiseach - desperate for a good story to deflect attention from media speculation about his own future and the fact that most of his TDs wanted to see the back of him - couldn't wait to tell the media afterwards that the Pope had told him he would visit Ireland in 2018.

Whether it was right for Kenny to divulge the contents of a private conversation with the Holy Father is another matter. It appears that Kenny, at that time, probably still hoped that he would have the honour of greeting the pontiff on the tarmac at Dublin Airport, but, as we now know, Leo Varadkar had other ideas.

Last September, at the Down and Connor Faith and Life Convention in Belfast, one of Pope Francis' senior aides, Dublin-born Cardinal Kevin Farrell, Prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life (head of the Vatican department that organises the WMOF) told journalists that the Pope intends to be in Dublin over two days, Saturday and Sunday, August 25 and 26 next year, but would not be drawn further.

Which begs the question: will Pope Francis make history by coming north?

Six months ago, a senior Catholic Church source told me that the Pope was coming to Northern Ireland.

One month ago, he wasn't quite so sure, as there is anxiety in Dublin, whose archdiocese is hosting the event, that a visit north would detract from the WMOF.

Undue weight should not be given to such concerns in Dublin and I have detected - and not just among the most senior northern bishops - a yearning for Pope Francis to come north that has been strongly communicated to the Vatican.

It is understood that, very early on, the Vatican's Secretariat of State, which is in charge of relations with foreign states, supported, in principle, a trip to both parts of Ireland.

It is, frankly, unthinkable that a Pope who has, as a moral leader, grabbed the imagination of much of the world, from Cuba to the US and the Middle East, who has spoken bluntly to Donald Trump and to the Myanmar generals (even if he did not, on his trip, use the 'R' word publicly until he addressed Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh), would not have something prophetic to say to society here after all we have been through.

A welcome recent development was DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson's statement to The Irish Catholic, apparently welcoming the prospect of a papal visit to Northern Ireland.

Whether power-sharing is restored or not by next August, Pope Francis would have something important to communicate to all of us by his actions and his words.

Martin O'Brien is a journalist and communications consultant and an award winning former BBC producer

Belfast Telegraph

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