Northern Ireland news

Appeals for Pope to cross border on Irish visit

Pope Francis arrives in St Peter's Square yesterday for his weekly general audience at the Vatican
Brendan Hughes

FOR Pope Francis not to make a historic trip north during his visit to Ireland this summer would show "spectacular tone-deafness", it has been claimed.

The Pope will visit Dublin over two days in August – the first papal visit to Ireland for almost 40 years.

But despite previous speculation, it appears there are no plans for him to visit Northern Ireland.

The trip will be the first time a pontiff has set foot on Irish soil since Pope John Paul II's successful visit in 1979, which drew crowds of over 2.5 million people.

That visit was planned to include the north, but he did not end up crossing the border amid security concerns.

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Instead of travelling to Armagh as originally intended, he delivered his message of peace from across the border at Drogheda before a huge crowd containing many from the north.

Pope Francis will be in Dublin on August 25 and 26 as the city hosts the World Meeting of Families, an international Catholic event staged every three years.

He will take part in the 'Festival of Families' at Croke Park on the Saturday, and like John Paul II will celebrate Mass in Phoenix Park the following day.

However, the Holy See has indicated that his schedule will not include a cross-border visit.

Michael Kelly, managing editor of The Irish Catholic newspaper, said the Pope travelling north would be a "tremendous sign of the transformation of Northern Ireland society".

"I would think if the Pope doesn't go to the north, to my mind it would show a spectacular tone-deafness from Vatican circles," he said.

"A visit to the north would be powerfully significant to the local community."

Mr Kelly, a native of Omagh, said he met John Paul II in 2003 and the pontiff remarked on how he was not able to visit Northern Ireland.

"When he discovered that I was from the north he said, 'I wasn't able to go to the north, but there's peace there now, thank God'. It was something that he held with him."

Mr Kelly added: "I think you will see an intensification from Irish bishops, particularly the northern bishops, pressing on the Vatican just how important a visit to the north would be.

"I think bishops will be pressing upon Rome that it would be a huge disappointment particularly given the memory of 1979."

Martin O'Brien, a former editor of The Irish News, said the absence of a functioning Stormont executive was a factor in the decision for the Pope not to travel north.

Recent clerical sex abuse allegations against deceased priest Fr Malachy Finegan may also have been considered, he added.

"Clearly the Vatican has made an assessment weighing up all the considerations that now is not an opportune time to visit Northern Ireland," he told the BBC.

"And that will be, if that turns out to be the case, a source of great disappointment for the Catholic faithful in Northern Ireland."

Robert Mickens, English language editor of Catholic newspaper La Croix International, also told Radio Ulster's Talkback programme that the trip to Ireland is "pegged specifically to the World Meeting of Families".

Asked whether the Stormont executive has had any discussions with the Church about a possible northern visit, an Executive Office spokesman said: "Details of papal visits are a matter for the Holy See."

Confirmation of the visit to Dublin was welcomed by the Catholic bishops in Ireland and by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who said he looked forward to meeting the Pope.

"While it is not a formal state visit, it will be a major event for Ireland, with a high degree of public participation and a high international profile," he said.

Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown said Pope Francis would be very welcome north of the border.

"I would be very keen that that could still be considered," he said.

"It would be a big opportunity for so many of us."

Former SDLP assembly member Alban Maginness, who saw Pope John Paul II in Drogheda in 1979, said there would "a great sense of disappointment" if the Pope does not come north.

"The last time there were high hopes the Pope would visit the north but all sorts of political reasons prevented him," he said.

"It would be a recognition of what people have suffered over the years in terms of the Troubles. He is a healer and I think it would be a nice gesture for a healer like him to come north."

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