Pope Francis may visit Northern Ireland next year

Pope and President Michael D Higgins discuss migration and difficulties facing EU

President Michael D. Higgins exchanges gifts during a meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican. Video: RTÉ

 

Pope Francis has indicated he may visit Northern Ireland next year as part of an anticipated trip to Dublin.

President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina met His Holiness in Rome on Monday as part of a three-day trip to Italy.

Mr Higgins said he discussed migration, climate change, the difficulties facing the European Union and the potential implications for the North with the Pope.

The President said the Pope was “very much looking forward” to visiting Ireland in August 2018.

Asked if there was potential for Northern Ireland to be included, Mr Higgins said there was agreement this was now a prospect and that the country had changed dramatically since the last Papal visit in 1979.

President Michael D Higgins (right) meets Pope Francis in the Vatican City Rome, on Monday. Photograph: Maxwells
President Michael D Higgins (right) meets Pope Francis in the Vatican City Rome, on Monday. Photograph: Maxwells

Mr Higgins told reporters: “I think there was general agreement that circumstances were quite different now and therefore the difficulties that might have been anticipated years ago, these circumstances were changed.”

Preliminary plans are in place for the Pope to visit Dublin in 2018 for the World Families Conference.

Ireland is expected to be in the midst of a debate on a potential referendum on repealing the eighth amendment to the Constitution, which places the life of the unborn on an equal footing to that of the mother.

President Higgins declined to comment on the timing of the vote or the difficulties such a referendum would pose, insisting this was a matter for the Government.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan, who accompanied the President, said the visit should take place regardless of the political climate at home.

Mr Flanagan insisted domestic matters should not prevent the Pope from visiting and should not form part of his trip while in Ireland.

The Minister also stressed the need for Pope Francis to visit Northern Ireland. “It did not happen in 1979 because the atmosphere at that time was such that it was not recommended,” he said. “Times have changed. A visit by the Pope would be hugely significant.”

President Michael D Higgins (centre) and Sabina Higgins (left) exchanges gifts with Pope Francis in the Vatican City Rome, on Monday. Photograph: Maxwells
President Michael D Higgins (centre) and Sabina Higgins (left) exchanges gifts with Pope Francis in the Vatican City Rome, on Monday. Photograph: Maxwells

The President earlier held a 15-minute audience with the Pope after which gifts were exchanged.

During their discussions, Mr Higgins stressed the need for elected representatives, Governments and those in positions of influence to connect with their people.

An example of this was the discussions on the British exit from the European Union and the opportunity to build a new union, which created social cohesion.

The President added: “The particularities of the Brexit negotiations are very important, but a concentration on a part of what challenges us must not be at the cost of the greater issues which we cannot neglect - issues of democratic reengagement, redefined subsidiarity, and a re-articulation of solidarity and cohesion.

“As with the great task of building peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, there are those who will say that the challenges currently facing Europe are too deep and complex to solve.

“And as with Northern Ireland, it is important that we do not evade difficulties, that we face them in a spirit of truth and honesty, while keeping our eyes firmly set on the ideal and the greater human values guiding our actions.”

Speaking to reporters later, Mr Higgins acknowledged that there was a disconnect between young people in Ireland and the Church.

However he stressed it was important that polemic actions or polemic statements was their only action. “If you take Ireland and where we are now and the young people who I have had conversations with there is not a rejection of what is transcendental or what is spiritual in Ireland, there is correct critique of institutions. That is how it should be.”