Papal tour of US shows why NI should not fear such a visit

Morning View
Morning View

The resounding success of the Pope’s visit to the United States is fresh evidence of why Northern Ireland should not fear a papal visit.

America, where Pope Francis landed on Tuesday, is in many respects similar to Northern Ireland, albeit on a vastly bigger scale.

Both countries are markedly Christian and churchgoing, in comparison to many parts of Europe (including England) where regular church attendance is undertaken only by a tiny fraction of the population.

Both countries have a Protestant majority with a large Catholic minority. And both countries are places where a papal visit was unthinkable until relatively recently.

The first visit by a pope (Paul VI) did not happen until 1965, almost 200 years after the independence of the United States.

No American president so much as met a pope until 1919, and a Catholic president was inconceivable until well into the 20th century (John F Kennedy became the first when he narrowly won the 1960 election).

In Northern Ireland, a papal visit would have been impossible during the Troubles. There was bitterness in the Province about perceived Irish Catholic ambivalence to terror.

But so much has changed since John Paul II visited the Republic in 1979.

Northern Ireland is now mostly peaceful and stable. Dublin has dropped its territorial claim over the Province.

And arguably the biggest element in improving relations between Rome and the Protestant churches are the overall global pressures on Christianity.

These range from aggressive atheism to the secular intolerance of traditional Christian interpretations of marriage to – at the extreme end of the spectrum – the horror of Isis.

There are, of course, Protestants who have deep and sincere objections to a papal visit. But Northern Ireland as a whole should demonstrate the generosity to a visiting Pope that the Republic showed to the Queen in 2011.