Support grows for Pope's Ireland visit to include the north

The fact that the leaders of the Protestant churches in Ireland have urged Pope Francis to visit the north this summer must be regarded as a positive and helpful intervention that demonstrates the broad support that exists for such a trip.

The Irish Catholic revealed this week that the heads of the Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Methodist churches, along with the president of the Irish Council of Churches, had sent a letter to the Vatican in December in relation to the Pope's proposed visit to Ireland in August for the World Meeting of Families.

In this correspondence, the church leaders said: ''The potential that a visit to Northern Ireland could have in promoting the cause of peace and reconciliation throughout this island cannot be underestimated.''

This letter will lend weight to the calls that have already been made urging Pope Francis to travel across the border and complete Pope John Paul II's historic pilgrimage to Ireland in 1979 which excluded the north.

The Protestant church leaders have confirmed that not only would Pope Francis receive a warm welcome in Northern Ireland but that such a visit would have positive implications for peace-building.

Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern has added his voice to the calls for the Pope to cross the border while Dr Harold Good, former president of the Methodist Church and a witness to IRA decommissioning, expressed disappointment at the north's exclusion from the papal itinerary.

While there has been significant social change across this island since 1979, when unprecedented numbers turned out to see Pope John Paul, many Catholics would share the view that a papal visit that included both parts of Ireland could only be regarded as beneficial.

The World Meeting of Families in Dublin is, of course, the main reason for his trip and the pontiff will only be in the country for a short time.

But even a brief visit to Northern Ireland would be hugely symbolic and should be considered by the Catholic Church.