Leading article

Fresh hopes for papal visit to Armagh

The suggestion from the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, that Pope Francis has not ruled out a cross-border dimension to his Irish visit in August will be widely noted.

When details of the proposed schedule were released last month, the director of the Holy See press office caused considerable surprise by saying apparently definitively that the Pope would not be travelling north.

According to the statement from the Irish Catholic Bishops, the two listings in the official programme are the Festival of Families in Croke Park on August 25 and an open air Mass in the Phoenix Park the following day.

During the only other papal trip to Ireland, by Pope John Paul II in 1979, there was enormous disappointment when the violence of the period forced plans for his historic arrival in Armagh, Ireland's ecclesiastical capital, to be dropped.

As speculation grew over recent years about the intentions of Pope Francis, who is now 81, it was always anticipated that his likely Irish itinerary would be shorter than his predecessor's but would include both Dublin and Armagh.

There was a clear sense of hurt, and indeed something close to bewilderment, among northern Catholics when different indications emerged, but the intervention from the Archbishop of Dublin has created a new feeling of optimism among people of goodwill in all traditions.

Asked about the prospects of a pontiff finally crossing the border, Dr Martin told The Irish Times; `The Pope is coming for the World Meeting of Families. If they were to organise an event around the family, that might make it easier. Not a political event.'

It was never expected that elected representatives would do any more than offer a warm but brief welcome to the Pope during a northern visit, and the continuing suspension of the Stormont institutions would further scale down any political involvement.

In addition, it has been well documented that the two main unionist parties have carefully avoided making objections to any of the Pope's possible engagements.

Agreeing that a Papal Mass at St Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh would be themed around the special position of families in Irish society should in all the circumstances be a relatively straightforward process, and one which is capable of being finalised within a matter of weeks.

Queen Elizabeth's visit to Dublin in 2011 at the invitation of president Mary McAleese was by any standards a deeply significant occasion, and there is an overwhelming case for allowing Pope Francis to make his own singular contribution to the cause of peace and reconciliation in Ireland.

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