Michael Kelly: Kenny's meeting with the Pope is a chance to give hope to Catholics
ENDA Kenny will certainly not be the most high-profile of European leaders meeting Pope Benedict this afternoon. However, despite never having met before, both men have been on opposite sides of a very public spat.
Today's meeting at the Pope's summer residence will be the first time an Irish government minister has met the head of the Catholic Church since a series of high-profile clerical-abuse reports were published. The encounter, albeit brief, is also an opportunity to look forward to a relationship built on mutual respect.
Mr Kenny's 2011 speech excoriating the Vatican's handling of abuse marked a decisive turning point in church-State relations. Never before had a Taoiseach spoken of the Vatican in such stark terms.
Accusing it of adopting a "calculated, withering position" on abuse in the wake of the Cloyne Report, the Taoiseach undoubtedly captured the public mood.
The fact that Mr Kenny spoke as a practising Catholic added a weight to his critique that a non-religious politician couldn't have managed.
Of course, Mr Kenny's speech had its obvious limitations, highlighted by the Vatican's 25-page response to the remarks. Mr Kenny quoted the Pope out of context which gave the false impression that Benedict thought the church was not subject to civil law. The Taoiseach also accused the Vatican of trying to interfere with the Cloyne Inquiry -- a charge described by the Vatican as "unfounded" and one that Mr Kenny later refused to expand further on.
Flaws aside, however, he gave voice to what many Catholics in Ireland and elsewhere felt. It led the Vatican to take the unprecedented step of issuing a formal recall to the Papal Nuncio Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza. And, while Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore remains insistent that his decision to close Ireland's Vatican embassy was purely based on financial considerations, it's hard not to see it in the context of the wider diplomatic row.
Rather than retaliate against the closure, however, if anything the Vatican can be said to have upgraded diplomatic relations with Ireland. Like a feuding couple, states that quarrel either have to sever ties or else find a way of accommodating one another.
When choosing a new Papal Nuncio, the Pope looked not to the corridors of the Church's elite diplomatic academy, but, for the first time, to one of his close confidantes, US Archbishop Charles Brown.
In the same way the Cabinet rubberstamps Irish diplomatic posts decided by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), the Pope usually merely endorses the choice of his Secretary of State. However, in sending Archbishop Brown to Ireland in January, Benedict was giving a very public signal that he wanted his hand-picked man to chart a path beyond the tension.
Since arriving in Ireland, Archbishop Brown has embarked on a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, he has been travelling the country reassuring Irish Catholics that their church is not deaf to their concerns. At the same time, he has been working quietly with officials in the DFA and other government circles to mend fences.
In this endeavour he has found a willing partner in DFA Secretary General David Cooney. Mr Cooney now double-jobs as Ireland's man in the Vatican. Both men are firm in their resolve that it will not be a return to the suffocatingly cosy relationship of the past, but a relationship build on common aims.
While Mr Kenny is in Rome for political meetings, his encounter with the Pope is more than coincidental. The meeting is part of a careful choreography designed to rebuild a strained relationship.
On a personal level, today's meeting will obviously also mean a lot to Mr Kenny. For any practising Catholic, a meeting with the Pope is a cherished encounter.
"As a member of the Catholic Church," Mr Kenny said on the reaction to the now infamous 2011 Dail speech, "I want to see the church of which I am a member as absolutely above reproach in the issue of this and other areas". He will find no disagreement from Benedict XVI. In 2010, the Pontiff told Irish bishops that the cover-up of abuse had "obscured the light of the gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing".
Neither the Taoiseach nor the Pope are expected to refer to the 2011 row during their brief meeting. There is the issue of the open-ended invitation to the Pontiff to visit Ireland to be considered.
Such a visit -- a key part of which would be a trip to the North, long seen as unfinished business of the peace process -- would offer Benedict XVI a chance to address the pain caused by abuse and an opportunity to offer Irish Catholics hope for the future.
By adding his support to such a visit, the Taoiseach would be giving a clear signal of his desire for warmer -- not cosy -- relations with the Vatican.
Michael Kelly is Deputy Editor of 'the Irish Catholic'