THE future leader of the Irish Catholic Church has said he "would dearly love" Pope Francis to visit Ireland and will "support any invitation".
Archbishop Eamon Martin, who has been selected to lead the church when Cardinal Sean Brady retires, also admitted that the "awful and terrible crimes and sins of child abuse brought us [the church] to our knees."
He said he felt the church was now recovering in part due to the 'Francis Factor' and that the bishops "have a long outstanding invitation to the Holy Father to return to Ireland".
Speaking in Armagh, where he is coadjutor archbishop, he explained that the hierarchy feels that the visit by Pope John Paul II in 1979 "was incomplete" because the Pontiff was unable to go north of the border.
"I believe Cardinal Brady, as president of the Irish Episcopal conference, has already said to Pope Francis that we would love him to come," Dr Martin said.
Referring to last month's motion by Belfast City Council inviting the Pope to visit the city, as well as Senator David Norris' Seanad motion in February, the archbishop said: "I do think that across Ireland, North and South, people would dearly love to see a visit from Pope Francis."
He underlined that if any visit were to go ahead it "would be important that the State – both North and South – would co-operate with us [the church] in arranging it. Because it would be a wonderful thing for Ireland."
But he sounded a note of caution, referring to Pope Francis' age. The Pope is 77.
"Realistically we're probably one of a multitude of nations that has asked the Pope to come and visit," he said.
Speaking to the Irish Independent during Easter ceremonies in Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, the Derry-born prelate turned to the dark shadow cast by the legacy of clerical child abuse.
He added that the Catholic Church had been forced to "accept awful truths about our past."
Despite all the scandals, he said that anecdotally, priests were seeing greater numbers of people coming to the sacraments and particularly confession, which he said might be linked to the 'Francis factor'.
"Perhaps we are also getting a bit of a reaction from people to an increasingly aggressive secular environment in Ireland where their faith is publicly attacked by some commentators in some media outlets.
"What that seems to be doing is making some people stand up more for their faith," he said.
On the debate on same-sex marriage, the archbishop, who has six sisters and five brothers, described himself as "a little bit disappointed" that anyone who argues in favour of the traditional understanding of marriage in the public forum "will often be attacked as being bigoted or homophobic".
He said this was "far from the truth".
The church "must always speak out against any victimisation or bullying or harassment of people" and talk about the dignity of people, he said.
"I would dearly love to see a greater public debate in a calm and reasonable manner which respects the voices of people on both sides of the debate," added the prelate, who was appointed by Pope Benedict in January, 2013.
"A debate which at least allows people to speak positively about what we in the church see as the beautiful special nature of marriage between a man and a woman open to the procreation of children."