28 November 2016, The Tablet

Irish prime minister confirms Pope Francis will visit Ireland in 2018 for World Meeting of Families in Dublin

Enda Kenny tweets confirmation of first papal visit to his country in almost 40 years after meeting in Vatican

 Pope Francis will visit Ireland in 2018, according to the country’s Prime Minister who met with him today in the Vatican. 

Enda Kenny confirmed the Pope’s planned trip following a 23-minute audience in the Vatican today which concluded with the Taoiseach saying: “Hopefully we’ll see you in Ireland.” Prime Minister Kenny then posted a message on the social media site Twitter that confirmed: "Pope Francis has been an important voice for the young, the poor & disadvantaged - glad he will visit Ireland in 2018."

Mr Kenny’s meeting with Pope Francis this morning (28 November) also symbolises a thawing in relations between Ireland and the Holy See as it takes place five years after the Prime Minister’s unprecedented attack on the Vatican over its handling of clerical sexual abuse. 

In 2011 the Taoiseach used a speech in the country’s parliament to condemn the “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism” of the Holy See’s response to the scandal.  

Soon after this speech, the government announced it was closing its embassy to the Vatican ostensibly for cost cutting reasons, but it was a move that sent shockwaves through the Church’s diplomatic establishment. And in response the Holy See temporarily recalled its ambassador to Ireland.  

Three years later, however, Ireland decided to re-open a permanent - albeit downscaled - embassy to the Holy See with relations improving under Francis’ papacy. 

According to a Vatican communique, the discussions between Mr Kenny and the Pope “evoked the historic bond between the Holy See and Ireland” and included challenges facing Europe on migration and youth employment along with contribution of the Church in Ireland and the role of Christians in public life. Following his meeting with the Pope, the Prime Minister met with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See’s Secretary of State, and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s foreign minister equivalent. 

Mr Kenny’s confirmation of the papal visit to Ireland comes after a formal request from the Irish Catholic Bishops for the Pope to attend the 2018 World Meeting of Families which is scheduled to take place in Dublin. 

But Mr Kenny will also have issued his own invitation as the visit of a Pope to another country requires an official request by the country’s political leaders: this is because the Pope officially travels to a country as a head of state. 

Should Francis go to Ireland in 2018 he will be the first visit by a pontiff to Ireland in almost 40 years, following John Paul II’s trip in 1979. But it will be his second visit to the country: in January 1980, the then Fr Jorge Bergoglio arrived in Dublin to spend some months learning English at the Milltown Institute. 

This Pope will, however, find a very different Ireland in 2018. While large numbers still consider themselves culturally Catholic, the country has seen a decline in Mass attendance while the close relationship between Church and state has been blown apart, mainly by the clerical sexual abuse scandal.

While in the past politicians were deferential to bishops, fearful that an episcopal reprimand would damage them among voters, today the country’s leaders often stand up to Church authority. 

This was shown today by Mr Kenny reportedly raising with the Pope the plight of six Irish priests who have been “silenced” by the Vatican for expressing views at odds with Catholic teaching. 

Among the are Fr Tony Flannery, who was removed from public ministry and recant from statements where he questioned the Church ban on contraception, women priests and teaching on homosexuality. The others are Brian d'Arcy, Owen O'Sullivan, Gerry Moloney and Iggy O'Donovan. One of them, Fr Sean Fagan, died last July. 

The 2011 diplomatic breakdown between Ireland and the Holy See was sparked by the publication of a public report into clerical sexual abuse in the Diocese of Cloyne, which suggested the Vatican sabotaged the efforts of Irish bishops to report allegations to the police. It found the Vatican had “serious reservations” about a policy of mandatory reporting and said the Holy See ambassador to Ireland had been uncooperative when asked for information. 

Following the Cloyne report’s release Mr Kenny said: "The historic relationship between church and state in Ireland could not be the same again. The rape and torture of children were downplayed or 'managed' to uphold instead the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation.”

The Holy See rejected allegations of a cover-up but said that it was "sorry and ashamed” about the scandal. 

PICTURE - Pope Francis exchanges gifts with the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny during an audience in his private studio at the Vatican on Monday

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