Saturday 10 December 2016

Pope appreciated my friendly advice, says Kenny

Published 29/11/2016 | 02:30

Pope Francis exchanges gifts with Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his wife Fionnuala during a private audience in his studio, at the Vatican. Photo: AP
Pope Francis exchanges gifts with Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his wife Fionnuala during a private audience in his studio, at the Vatican. Photo: AP

When your host is surrounded by more opulence than most will ever imagine, it must be difficult to choose a present. So Taoiseach Enda Kenny went for the personal touch.

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"It's from a church in the west of Ireland," his wife Fionnuala helpfully told the Pope as the couple sought a smile of approval from the Holy Father.

The artist, Harry Clarke, is "very famous", the Taoiseach offered up, as Fionnuala concurred he was "very well known".

All the while Pope Francis nodded in friendly recognition of his guests' efforts. The printed canvas of the nativity window from St Patrick's Church in Kilmaine, Co Mayo, will now compete with Michelangelo and Raphael for wall space in the Apostolic Palace.

Pope Francis greets renowned physicist Stephen Hawking during a separate audience at the Vatican. Photo: AP
Pope Francis greets renowned physicist Stephen Hawking during a separate audience at the Vatican. Photo: AP

As the cameras flashed, His Holiness came across as a man of few words but the Taoiseach reassured reporters and himself afterwards that they had a "very relaxed" conversation.

In just 27 minutes they managed, with the help of a translator, to squeeze in Brexit, climate change, youth unemployment, Northern Ireland, Church-State relations, Argentina's World Cup winning performance in 1978 and the goings-on at Sunday Mass in Mayo.

The Taoiseach's key message though was the Pope would be most welcome to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families, which takes place in Dublin in August 2018.

Mr Kenny said it was "an exceptional privilege and honour" to travel to Rome to personally reiterate the invitation issued by the Irish bishops.

"We discussed what he might do and obviously that's a matter for dialogue between His Holiness and the bishops - and if he also travels to Northern Ireland we will assist in co-operating with whatever arrangements that they want to arrive at," Mr Kenny said.

Ireland has changed dramatically since 2.5 million people battled each other for a glimpse of Pope John Paul II. But the Taoiseach promised that, while the crowds might be smaller, the official welcome and red carpet treatment would be no less significant.

Proving his own credentials, the Taoiseach told the Pontiff how at Mass the day before he was asked to light a candle on the Advent wreath for the Pope.

It wasn't all divine, though. He had raised some "difficulties", a clear reference to his unprecedented attack on the Vatican in the wake of the Cloyne Report into child sex abuse.

Having made global headlines and caused a storm in the Holy See, it will most likely rank as the standout speech of Mr Kenny's career.

He accused the Catholic hierarchy of trying "to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign democratic republic" and said the report "excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican".

"The rape and torture of children were downplayed or 'managed' to uphold instead the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation," Mr Kenny said.

That was five years ago now and it seems the Taoiseach believes the new Pope has a "particular presence" and ability to heal wounds.

"There is a particular sense of his being a very special person," he said. "I explained to him my own difficulties with the Church some years ago and I was happy to conform to him that Church-State relations are in a better shape than they were for very many years. That we work very well with the bishops and the clergy, that there are so many more safeguards in place than there were before that. I regard these relations as being at a healthier position than they were for many years."

However, he intimated there will be an expectation that the Pope address the issue when he comes to Ireland.

Mr Kenny gave him some "friendly" advice which he thinks will "help greatly" with his pilgrimage.

"That's an area which I think he appreciates. I did refer him to his own comments in America when I think he was very clear about members of the clergy who abused children and his statement on that was quite clear and very strong," he said. It was a "very good, constructive, practical conversation".

The Taoiseach was close to levitating afterwards, outdone only by Fionnuala who was practically giddy.

Yet when her turn came to greet the Pontiff, she confidently strode across the marble floor of the Papal Library grinning from ear to ear. Dressed all in black, she didn't betray the excitement she was feeling inside. It made you wonder why the first lady doesn't do more public appearances.

She told reporters that she found it all "very emotional".

On their arrival, Mrs Kenny was greeted along with her husband by Papal Gentlemen, who are lay attendants of the Pope, before parading through the pristine corridors of the Vatican.

The Irish delegation was more sizeable than would normally be expected for such a brief trip, including ambassador Emma Madigan, Mr Kenny's chief of staff Mark Kennelly, private secretary Teresa Doolin, press officer Jack O'Donnell, the European director general of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Eoin O'Leary, Mr Kenny's PA Anne Marie Duran and security officer Frank White.

Each was presented with a set of rosary beads, with the Taoiseach telling the Pontiff his mother "in heaven" would be delighted.

Following the papal audience there was a more in-depth 'chat' with the Vatican's equivalent of a prime minister, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

He's the details man and wanted to know about the Citizens' Assembly on the Eighth Amendment and the divestment of schools.

Mr Kenny obliged, never once mentioning the elephant in the room until the secretary of state himself broached the topic.

In 2015, Cardinal Parolin described the result of our marriage referendum as a "defeat for humanity".

But perhaps conscious of his surroundings, the Taoiseach adopted a 'forgive and forget' approach.

"I said 'you are perfectly entitled to make your comment. Obviously the people voted in a referendum which was the first in the world where it came through a citizens convention and so many people travelled back to Ireland to actually register and vote'," Mr Kenny said, adding that the Cardinal understood "very clearly and accepts that utterly".

And with that his morning in the Vatican was over. Mr Kenny left with his rosary beads, a stack of photographs for the mantelpiece and an etching of St Peter's Basilica which Pope Francis gave him in return for the nativity scene.

"My privilege," he told the Pope on the way out before Fionnuala injected: "And hopefully we'll see you in Ireland."

Irish Independent

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