Belfast Telegraph

The Queen welcoming the Pope to NI in 2018 would be a great symbol of hope

By Alf McCreary

As we enter the new year there is no doubt that the big religion story in 2018 will be the visit of Pope Francis to Ireland in August.

Senior members of the Irish hierarchy have already been emphasising this in their Christmas and New Year messages, and the publicity - and hype - will build up steadily as the year progresses.

Pope Francis will come to a very different Republic compared to the one that Pope John Paul II triumphantly toured in 1979.

Ireland is much more secular, though perhaps not as much as the critics of Christianity believe.

There is still a bedrock Catholic faith, despite the evils of clerical sex child abuse which put so many people off the Church at large.

The Protestant Churches in the Republic, which were struggling to maintain members not so long ago, have been given a lifeline by the influx of immigrants from countries, particularly in Africa, where Christianity remains strong and, in many places, still growing.

There is a high expectation that the Pope will also come to Northern Ireland, though the times and places he will visit have yet to be worked out.

If and when he comes - and many people here including me, are hoping that he will - it will be a massive historical event.

It will complete symbolically the visit of John Paul II, who was genuinely distressed because he was prevented from coming here by the dire security situation in 1979.

Pope Francis's visit to the north, assuming that there will be one, will focus the attention of the world on Northern Ireland, however briefly.

National and international correspondents will discover, if they wish to do so, that the security situation here has improved out of all recognition, and that Belfast and the rest of the province are high on the international tourist list.

However, the political situation is deadlocked and arguably worse than it has been for many years. The middle ground has shrunk, the prospect of true power-sharing has diminished, and each election is likely now to become a sectarian headcount.

However, we must remain deeply grateful for the improved security and stay hopeful that somehow we will stumble through the current quagmire to find better days ahead.

Some people are wondering how the Pope will be received up here. My instinct tells me that he will be given a warm welcome by his own faithful and also by the Protestant community in general, as well as many non-believers.

The Pope, like the Queen, is a truly world figure and if the two could meet here that would also add to the important symbolism when Her Majesty met President Mary McAleese in the Republic a few years ago.

No doubt there will be many conservative Protestants in the north who will oppose the Pope's visit here and there may be a number of demonstrations against him.

Let's not forget the late Ian Paisley was bitterly and loudly opposed to the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland, technically another country, and even when Pope Benedict visited the UK, a more mellow Paisley still continued to lead a protest against him in Edinburgh.

Broadly the mainstream Protestant Churches are supportive of Pope Francis's visit to Northern Ireland and there was a confirmation of this neatly buried in their joint New Year's message.

The Church leaders stated: "As Christian Churches we have taken the opportunity presented by this event to explore together how we can celebrate the importance of families to our churches and the wider community, recognising that our pastoral care of the family is an essential part of our contribution to society."

Such a statement, with such a constructive and conciliatory tone, was conspicuous by its absence in 1979 when Pope John Paul II came to Ireland, and when a former Presbyterian Clerk of the General Assembly, the visionary Rev Dr Jack Weir found himself in deep trouble with many of his own Church for visiting the Pope in Dublin.

So we have made some progress since the last time a Pope came to Ireland,which is a cheerful note on which to begin the new year.

Belfast Telegraph

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