Announcements of Papal visits are supposed to be moments of unbridled joy. But, the news that Pope Francis is to come to Ireland in August is somewhat tinged with sadness and disappointment.
Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown speaks for many when he articulates the disappointment felt about how organisers of the Pope’s trip have decided to leave the North off the agenda.
It’s a baffling decision and means, as Bishop McKeown puts it, that Northern Ireland “for whatever reason, is not visitable by a Pope”.
Speaking to priests in the North over the past week, it’s clearly a disappointment that is acutely felt by parishioners. People still remember the fact that the planned visit of St John Paul II to the North had to be postponed due to an upsurge in violence at the time.
Northern Ireland has been through 30 years of sectarian murder and violence and has emerged on the other side traumatised but transformed.
Evidence of that transformation is clear from the number of leaders from within the Protestant community who have also been expressing disappointment that the Pontiff is skipping the North.
The Pope’s participation at the World Meeting of Families is obviously welcome and a cause for delight, but as far as Papal travel goes it makes for a fairly unambitious trip.
It also runs the risk of turning what could have been an historic trip into a fairly low-key event. Do organisers really want to wave goodbye to the Pope on August 26 and think to themselves ‘that was fine, but it could’ve been better’?
Some will protest and say that the Dublin event is the very reason that has precipitated the Pope’s visit. This is true, but it’s virtually unheard of for a Pope to visit a country for one event alone. This is particularly the case given the small geographical area that would need to be covered.
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin clearly doesn’t want to deflect attention from the World Meeting of Families, but the Pope and the Vatican have been badly advised to restrict the trip to Dublin. When Francis visited the last WMOF in Philadelphia, he included a stop-off in Cuba as well as trips to New York and Washington DC.
There’s still time for a change of heart. Bishop McKeown has vowed that northern bishops will make their voices heard in Rome on the issue. They are right to articulate the disappointments and concerns of their congregations.
Let’s hope Pope Francis is in listening mode. If not, it’ll be a huge missed opportunity.