Sunday 24 June 2018

Pope Francis 'will leave the North off visit'

IRISH VISIT: Pope Francis. Picture: REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini/File Photo
IRISH VISIT: Pope Francis. Picture: REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini/File Photo

Paddy Agnew

Details of Pope Francis's visit to Ireland will finally be released tomorrow with few if any surprises in store.

The Holy See will confirm the schedule for this summer's trip - with no sign of any amendments to include a visit to the North.

Arguably, the most significant item in the papal programme, at least from the secular viewpoint, will be the Missing Item, namely that oft-discussed papal visit to Northern Ireland.

This comes as no surprise. When Pope Francis officially confirmed the trip in a general audience in March, senior Vatican spokesman Greg Burke categorically told the Sunday Independent that there would be no "diversion" to the Six Counties.

The two main movers behind the visit - Cardinal Kevin Farrell, Prefect of the Vatican's Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life, and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin in Dublin - have always been very cautious and circumspect about the possibility that he would include the North on his travels.

He will make a pastoral visit to the World Meeting of Families on August 25-26.

The visit - the first by a Pontiff since Pope John Paul's Mass at Phoenix Park in 1979 - will include a series of events.

It includes a national opening, simultaneously in the 26 dioceses on August 21, followed by a three-day pastoral congress at the RDS, Dublin, on August 22-24.

However, most attention will focus on the weekend - the Festival of Families in Croke Park on Saturday, August 25, and the centrepiece of the visit - the closing Mass for the World Meeting of Families on the following day.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from around the world are expected to flock to the Phoenix Park.

The feeling remains, however, that this is an opportunity missed.

A couple of weeks ago, a Good Friday Agreement anniversary seminar in Rome was attended by Northern Irish religious leaders, Catholic and Protestant, as well as by other past and present "players".

What emerged was an overwhelming sense that putting Northern Ireland on the schedule could prove crucial.

One speaker suggested that it would be "an iconic moment of unity".

Others suggested that if the Pope did not go to the North, it would be "a tragedy", "a mistake" in a politically stalled Northern Ireland where sectarian tensions are on the increase again.

The point is, of course, that despite the overwhelming secularist bent of the Irish people, as underlined by the recent referendum vote, Pope Francis remains an international leader of huge credibility.

A 55-country poll, published last December and carried out by the Worldwide Independent Network, showed that 70pc of Irish people questioned approve of Pope Francis.

In contrast, 82pc of the Irish gave US President Donald Trump an unfavourable rating.

Sunday Independent

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