Year of Pope Francis: no wonder Iveagh House wanted to get back in on the action

Praying at the wall that divides Israel and Palestine, meeting sex-abuse victims and excommunicating the Mafia: the popehas quickly become a player on the world stage

Frontier: the pope at the Israel-West Bank wall. photograph: Mheisen Amareen/Reuters

Frontier: the pope at the Israel-West Bank wall. photograph: Mheisen Amareen/Reuters

 

When Ireland’s new Ambassador to the Holy See, Emma Madigan, was chatting to Pope Francis in the pontifical library the day she presented her diplomatic credentials last month, the pope at one point told her: “You know, before the conclave last year the bookmakers were quoting me at 25/1, and then look what happened.”

If Francis’s election in 2013 saw the triumph of a 25/1 shot, what price do we put on the rapid turnaround – even U-turnaround – in Irish-Vatican relations now as compared with three years ago? Those were the days when Taoiseach Enda Kenny, rightly in the opinion of many, accused the Holy See of being dominated by a culture of “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism”.

Rather than listen to evidence of clerical sex abuse with “St Benedict’s ear of the heart”, the Holy See had preferred to “parse and analyse it with the gimlet eye of a canon lawyer”, he said in a celebrated speech to the Dáil in July 2011.

When Madigan met Pope Francis last month there was no mention of those strained relations. A veil has been drawn over that awkward moment. But that is not to say that, from 2015, Irish relations with the Vatican will return to their genuflecting past.

As Ireland strengthens its relations with a pope who in a short time has become a player on the world stage, it arguably does so on a different basis. For a start, the new Ambassador is not a distinguished and experienced diplomat, in a final posting before retirement.

On the contrary, the Vatican appointment is the 41-year-old’s first ambassadorial posting. She is not only the first woman to serve as Irish Ambassador to the Holy See but also takes up the posting on a permanent residential basis after a three-year hiatus when the previous ambassador, David Cooney, was based at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin.

Many interpreted the closure of Ireland’s Vatican Embassy three years ago less as a cost-cutting exercise – the official explanation – than as an indication of deep-lying tensions between Ireland and the Holy See.

All of that would appear to have been forgiven, if not forgotten. The new Ambassador told The Irish Times last month that not only Pope Francis but also senior Holy See figures have been more than glad to welcome Ireland back into the ranks of the permanently accredited.

From now on, however, the relationship may be significantly different. For a start there is the obvious suspicion that Foreign Affairs wanted to get back on to the Popemobile because it represents one of the most fascinating shows not just in town but on the planet.

Second, under Madigan, Ireland is far more likely to make common ground with Francis on issues such as combating poverty, reducing hunger and promoting sustainable development than it is on same-sex marriage, divorce and family planning.

Even the most cursory glance back at 2014 indicates how important the “Francis Show” has become. His moment of prayer with the Grand Mufti of Istanbul in the Blue Mosque in November; his moment of prayer at the dividing wall between Israel and Palestine last May; his full and frank October synod of bishops; his meeting with clerical sex abuse victims last July; his meeting with Latin American Popular Movements in October; the slavery-abolition declaration signed at the Vatican along with Orthodox, Anglican, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu representatives this month; the defrocking of the child-abusing former nuncio Josef Wesolowski, who was convicted in a Vatican court last June; his excommunication of the Mafia in an outspoken tirade in Calabria last June; and the ongoing judicial investigations and reform process at the Vatican bank IOR.

These are just some of the momentous happenings in a papal year when the sun never seemed to set on the activities of the industrious Francis. With another important synod set for next October, and three visits to Latin America, one to Africa and one to the US already on the programme, 2015 looks guaranteed to be just as busy.

Little wonder that Iveagh House felt that it was time to get back in on the action.

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