There is huge disappointment across the Catholic community in the North as hopes fade about the prospect of a papal visit to the region, Derry’s Bishop Donal McKeown has said.
With a visit by Pope Francis to Northern Ireland now looking almost impossible, Bishop McKeown has said Protestants and Catholics would have welcomed a visit.
“There is clearly disappointment on the part of many people – that’s a fact,” he told The Irish Catholic. “There’s a widespread sense that Northern Ireland has come a long way and it would be wonderful to have a papal visit – and all the Churches are saying that.
“We’ve come a long way, we’ve achieved an awful lot, and we’d be grateful to get commendation for that and affirmation for what has happened already,” he added.
The bishop’s comments come against the background of numerous requests to the Vatican that the Pope visit the North. The Irish Catholic understands that a last-ditch effort by Irish Church leaders was unsuccessful in recent weeks; Dr McKeown explained that the Northern bishops’ wish that the Pope visit the region was expressed to the papal nuncio, Archbishop Jude Okolo, on several occasions.
However, he said, at 82 years old, Pope Francis tends to make short visits in order to conserve time and energy, such that the restriction of the Pope’s visit to Dublin and Knock is understandable.
Should the Pope decide on a future visit to the North he would be assured of a warm welcome, Dr McKeown added.
“It would be great if the Pope came,” he said. “Certainly Derry would be very happy to have welcomed him, for example. I’m sure other places would be primary spots for him to come to, but there genuinely is hope on the ground here that it’d be great for the North for the Pope to come, and that he may plan to come some other time.”
The Irish News, generally recognised as the principal voice of Nationalist opinion in Northern Ireland, has said that “Northern Catholics yearn to see the Pope in Armagh”, and argued that it would hardly be an onerous addition to Pope Francis’ itinerary.
“A visit to Armagh, almost certainly arriving and leaving by helicopter, might take two hours at most, and, even at this stage, there is an overwhelming case for persuading senior Vatican officials to agree that it should be facilitated,” according to the newspaper.
However, any papal visit to the North would have a different focus than one to the Republic, Dr McKeown noted, observing that Pope Francis may not have wanted to confuse his Irish visit by giving sharply different messages.
“I think certainly in the Republic the papal visit will be seen as primarily to a Catholic event. I think any papal visit to the North would be much more ecumenically slanted – it’d be focused I think on peacemaking and on the contribution the Churches have made and continue to make into the future,” he said.
“It’d be a very different agenda: he wouldn’t be coming to the North for the World Meeting of Families, and he may have thought he’d keep these two things quite separate rather than confusing them,” he said.