Pope Francis has said he will visit Ireland in 2018, in what will be the first papal tour of the country since John Paul II’s historic trip in 1979.
The taoiseach, Enda Kenny, confirmed the Argentinian pontiff’s visit after a 20-minute audience with him in the Vatican on Monday, during which the Irish prime minister issued a formal invitation.
Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, said he was confident the pope would also cross the border into Northern Ireland. “I think there is no prospect whatsoever of him coming to Ireland and him not coming to the north,” McGuinness said.
Asked why he was so sure, he replied: “Because I’m around a long time and I know how these things work.”
During the last papal visit, John Paul II was unable to go to Northern Ireland due to fears about his security at a time of heightened tensions during the Troubles.
The Polish pope got as far north at Drogheda where during an open-air mass he called on the IRA to abandon its armed struggle – a plea the Provisionals rejected in 1979.
The meeting between Kenny and the pope had been requested after an invitation from the Irish Catholic bishops’ conference to visit Ireland for the World Meeting of Families in two years. The global conference on the family is scheduled to be held in August 2018.
Kenny was accompanied at the Vatican by his wife, Fionnuala, and the Irish ambassador to the Holy See, Emma Madigan. As they left the meeting, Fionnuala Kenny said to the pope: “Hopefully we’ll see you in Ireland.”
The taoiseach presented the pope with a print of a stained glass window by Irish artist Harry Clarke. In return, the Fine Gael leader received an etching of St Peter’s Basilica.
The taoiseach’s trip to the Vatican was seen as a bridge-building exercise after his blistering attack on the global Catholic leadership in 2011. Five years ago, Kenny accused the Vatican of trying to play down the gravity of a report into widespread sexual abuse in the Cloyne diocese.
In what was the strongest attack on the Holy See by any Irish prime minister, Kenny said there was “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day”.Kenny on Monday also raised the prospect of Pope Francis going to Northern Ireland, saying the Irish government would support him in doing so if he wanted.
“I said to [the pope] that very point, that John Paul couldn’t go because of the Troubles at the time. He did pray for peace on his knees at that time and ask the men of violence to give up their ways. So [Francis] did say that the schedule will be worked out in dialogue between the bishops and the church themselves.
“What I said to him was he’s going to be very welcome. The government will make whatever arrangements it needs to make. If it transpires that the pope wants to go to Northern Ireland for a visit, we will cooperate and work with the executive [power sharing government in Belfast].”
The papal visit to Ireland will be seen by the Irish Catholic hierarchy as a chance to reinvigorate a church beset by scandals over paedophile priests, the abuse of children in church-run institutions, the selling of babies of single mothers to rich American couples and revelations that one bishop fathered a child from a clandestine longtime relationship.
The proposed tour comes at a time when abortion is back on the political agenda in Ireland. A nationwide campaign is gathering momentum, demanding the abolition of an amendment to the constitution that pro-choice campaigners say prevents serious reform of strict anti-abortion laws.
Last week, the Irish trade union movement supported calls for the abolition of the eighth amendment to the constitution, which was introduced through a referendum in 1983. Ireland’s then politically influential anti-abortion lobby, in alliance with the Catholic church, forced the Fine Gael-Labour coalition to hold a national vote to, in effect, define embryos as Irish citizens. It passed with 67% voting in favour.
Pro-choice groups say the amendment creates a legal “chill factor” among medics, even in cases where, under a recent law applicable in very limited circumstances, terminations are allowed, such as when continuing with a pregnancy would result in the woman’s death or in cases where she is suicidal.