Monday interview: 'We can't compare Pope's visit to 1979, it is a different place'
Fr Tim Bartlett says level of support will still surprise many, writes Denise Calnan
Pope Francis's potential visit to Ireland next year will be "radically different" to the previous papal visit in 1979, according to a leading priest.
Fr Tim Bartlett, who is secretary general for the World Meeting of Families event, which hopes to host the Pope next year, said they acknowledge that Ireland is "in a different place" now.
But he believes that the country is at "a more critical moment in history".
Fr Bartlett previously worked as an assistant to Primate of All Ireland Cardinal Sean Brady and is known for his influential engagement on behalf of the Church with authorities in the Republic and North on conflict reconciliation, clerical abuse and other major societal issues.
Today marks the launch of the year-long programme of preparation for the international WMOF event in Dublin next August.
Fr Bartlett said the 2018 event, set to host thousands of families from across the world, will "appeal to the real issues of family today".
"It will be warm, welcoming and joyful, real, accessible and deal with practical issues that everyday families can tack into," he said. "This will not be a highly theological reflection."
The priest said the team is "giving absolutely no concern" to whether the audience for the Pope's address will match the one million who showed up for Pope John Paul II's open-air Mass in Phoenix Park in 1979.
"That just doesn't enter into the equation at all. That is not why Pope Francis is coming," Fr Bartlett said.
"We know Pope Francis has personally chosen Ireland for the WMOF event. He is speaking in a very attractive and interesting way to the real needs of our world today and that's what he is coming to do.
"We're not coming to this point with any comparison. We know we are in a different place. Even at the level of participating in a large event, we would expect that a lot of people may actually just watch things online rather than necessarily go to something. I think there will be bigger support and participation than people think."
He adds: "There is tremendous goodwill going around the country. People are genuinely very supportive, very excited. People who don't feel particularly close to the Church at the moment, for a variety of reasons, have quietly said to me, 'we're delighted this is happening'."
On changing attitudes to the Catholic Church, Fr Bartlett says: "Anyone that is angry at the Church, I think there is a bigger openness to Pope Francis, they respect his integrity, he speaks this common language that everyone understands."
Fr Bartlett credits his childhood in Ardoyne in north Belfast during the Troubles with his decision to join the priesthood, and personally hopes Pope Francis will be able to visit Northern Ireland.
"When I was 14, I went to the Mass here in Dublin in 1979, I managed to wangle my way in to the official choir," Fr Bartlett said.
"I remember, even at that age, the profound disappointment that the Holy Father couldn't come to the North of Ireland.
"The Troubles were a huge part of my growing up and violence has directly impacted on my family in a number of ways. In all of that I discovered, through the fear of someone coming in to your house and killing your family, the importance of prayer.
"The simple fact Pope Francis may be joining us is incredible but I have to be honest, if the Holy Father would be able to come to the North, I would regard that as an incredibly remarkable, appropriate and beautiful closure on a very turbulent and difficult history that was fundamental to my growing up. To this island, it would also be another signal we have moved beyond that, into a normal society where we can all respect each other."
The WMOF event will open on August 21, 2018, and is hoping Pope Francis will address crowds at the 'Festival of Families' on the Saturday evening, before hosting a final Mass in Dublin on the Sunday.
The team, which has just signed up its 1,000th volunteer, is marking one year to go at the National Novena in Knock today. The event's official icon, which weighs 200kg, will be unveiled and begin its year-long journey around the 26 dioceses of Ireland. The WMOF official prayer and online 'programme of conversation' will also be launched today.
"I think the whole event will help people to regain a little bit of hope and a renewed confidence in expressing their faith in a humble, gentle way.
"It can be a reawakening of the faith either they've forgotten about, or they feel they've rejected it out of legitimate anger after the terrible things that have happened."