Leading article

Overwhelming case for Pope Francis to visit Armagh

It has been known for a considerable period of time that Pope Francis will be attending the World Meeting of Families which is taking place at Croke Park in Dublin this August.

As well as the major gathering at the headquarters of the GAA, it was clear from an early stage in the planning process that an open air Pontifical Mass at Phoenix Park was also central to his two-day trip.

Across the country, it was taken for granted that the third and final part of the papal agenda would involve the historic gesture of crossing the border to arrive in Ireland's ecclesiastical capital of Armagh.

While it was hugely frustrating for not just Catholics but all Irish people of goodwill that the appalling violence of the period inevitably prevented Pope John Paul II from travelling north to St Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh in 1979, it was widely anticipated that his pilgrimage would be posthumously completed this year.

There was no particular concern when the initial itinerary for Pope Francis did not mention the north, as it was assumed that addressing the political sensitivities and logistical details would delay the formal announcements for a few weeks.

However, as the months have gone by, it has become clear that the key decision-makers behind the trip view including Armagh as a considerable complication rather than an absolute priority.

Indications have grown that Pope Francis had been advised to remain in the southern jurisdiction, and details of his reported schedule which emerged at the weekend suggest that the Marian Shrine at Knock in Co Mayo would be his only engagement outside Dublin.

The resulting sense of sharp disappointment expressed by Bishop Donal McKeown in our report today will be shared by Catholics across Ireland and particularly in the north.

Pope Francis may well be primarily committed to participating in the World Meeting of Families event rather than organising a full-scale papal visit, but it should be accepted that much wider issues, linked to not just symbolism but identity and respect are at stake.

Northern Catholics yearn to see the Pope in Armagh and crucially, in the absence of our devolved structures at Stormont, they have been strongly supported by the leaders of the other main Christian denominations.

Pope Francis, who has made a massive impact at all levels since his election in 2013, is also in his 82nd year and the prospects of his returning to Ireland in the foreseeable future must be remote.

The standing of the Catholic Church in Ireland has changed beyond recognition since John Paul II landed at Dublin Airport almost four decades ago, and Catholics, other Christians and the wider population all want to hear at first hand the message his successor is going to send out.

A visit to Armagh, almost certainly arriving and leaving by helicopter, might take two hours at most, and, even at this late stage, there is an overwhelming case for persuading senior Vatican officials to agree that it should be facilitated.

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