'Ireland is very close to the Pope's heart - I think a visit here is possible'
A papal visit to Ireland is looking increasingly likely after the Papal Nuncio indicated that a short trip in 2016 might be possible.
Speaking to the Irish Independent, Archbishop Charles Brown ruled out Pope Francis coming here in 2015, saying the Pontiff already has visits scheduled and announced.
But asked about a visit after 2015, the Archbishop said: "I think it is possible".
The New York-born diplomat, who is Dean of the Diplomatic Corps in Ireland, said it would give him "great joy" if a papal visit were to happen.
"I am sure that Catholics in Ireland, the bishops in Ireland, the priests in Ireland - everyone would be absolutely overjoyed if Pope Francis could come."
He said 2014 had been a great year, as there had been an invitation to the Pope from the Seanad in February "because of the good work" of David Norris and Paul Coughlan.
This was followed by the Taoiseach's invitation in April to the Pope following canonisation ceremonies for Saints John Paul II and John XXIII.
"So we have a groundswell, I think, of support for that idea," said Dr Brown
"Ireland is very close to the Pope's heart - I have talked to him about this. He really has a great love for Ireland. He has a great love for the Blessed Virgin Mary and he is in tune with that Marian piety of the Irish people."
"So the invitations are coming from Ireland - so encouraging, so beautiful and such a testimony to the Catholic faith of the people in Ireland.
"You mix all of these things together and it makes me hope that a visit could be possible. I think it is possible," he said.
However, he said it was important to realise that Pope Francis is not a travelling pope like Pope John Paul II. He recalled Pope Francis' comment early in his pontificate when he was unenthusiastic about "airport bishops . . . bishops that you only see in the airport".
"I worked in the Vatican for 17 years and I didn't really know Cardinal Bergoglio (the future Pope Francis), and one reason I didn't really know him before he became pope was that he wasn't in Rome constantly. He stayed in Buenos Aires and took care of his people and sanctified his diocese."
But the Nuncio suggested that the Pope's connections with Ireland could be a factor in bringing about a visit.
As a young Argentinean Jesuit, the future pontiff studied English in Ireland in the 1970s and still has good memories of that time.
Archbishop Brown said that while people had been deeply affected by the church scandals here, there was also "a great and beautiful reservoir of faith and Catholic practice".
"I think it is safe to say that the practice of the faith in Ireland today continues to be higher than almost any other European country or perhaps any European country. That bedrock of faith was something that struck me instantly."
On Church-State relations, the Papal Nuncio said Catholics in Ireland simply ask for the freedom to live their faith and practice their faith.
"They are not asking in any way to impose their faith on others.
"That is the nature of a pluralistic society composed of believers and non-believers."
Dr Brown will spend Christmas in upstate New York with his mother and his brother's family, celebrating Mass in a small country parish.
Five of his great-grandparents were from Ireland and he recently met two second cousins at St Raphael's school, Loughrea.