Protestant leaders make unprecedented plea
Greg Daly and Martin O’Brien
One of the key architects of the peace process has said that if Pope Francis does not visit the North during his Irish visit in August it will be a missed opportunity to help peace and reconciliation.
Speaking exclusively to The Irish Catholic former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern expressed the hope that there is still time to add engagements in the North to the planned visit to Dublin to attend the World Meeting of Families.
Asked if he thought it was a missed opportunity, Mr Ahern recalled how much disappointment there was when Pope St John Paul II could not go to the North in 1979 “and the Pope doesn’t come too often: it’s nearly 40 years so it’d be nice if he was able to visit if everyone was onside”.
He expressed the hope that there could be a change of heart from those organising the trip. “From what I’ve heard the programme isn’t yet completed…so it’d be certainly be nice.” He also said the visit would be beneficial for the peace process.
Mr Ahern’s intervention is a sign of growing pressure for the Pontiff to cross the border. It comes as this newspaper can reveal that the country’s Protestant leaders have made an unprecedented intervention telling Pope Francis that the impact of a papal visit to the North on “promoting the cause of peace and reconciliation throughout this island, cannot be underestimated”.
The letter – a copy of which has been obtained by this newspaper – was signed
by the Church of Ireland Primate of All-Ireland Archbishop Richard Clarke, the Presbyterian Moderator Dr Noble McNeely, the Methodist President Dr Lawrence Graham, and the President of the Irish Council of Churches, Bishop John McDowell.
The leaders write: “we are aware of the prospect of your visit to Ireland in August 2018, to attend the World Meeting of Families, and the possibility of some additional engagements, including a possible visit to Northern Ireland.
“We know that members of the Catholic Church, both south and north of border, will be greatly encouraged if these visits were to come about.
“The potential that a visit to Northern Ireland could have in promoting the cause of peace and reconciliation throughout this island cannot be underestimated,” the letter says. Sent before Christmas, the correspondence has only now come to light.
Meanwhile, another of Ireland’s foremost Protestant churchmen, Dr Harold Good, a former president of the Methodist Church, and a witness to the historic decommissioning of IRA weapons, told The Irish Catholic that he was “disappointed” by the apparent decision to exclude the North and said that he “would encourage a re-think”.
Dr Good said: “I feel it is an opportunity missed. An opportunity for us all to be seen to share the joy of our Roman Catholic friends and neighbours for whom such a visit would have been hugely encouraging and affirming”.
He said that “given the very clear expressions of disappointment and the assurance of an unprecedented welcome from across the community, I would encourage a re-think, even at this late stage. All of us have busy diaries that we must be prepared to re-adjust as changed and changing circumstances dictate.”