The Protestant church leaders are right: the Pope should visit NI

The leaders of the main Protestant churches have written to Pope Francis, urging him to visit Northern Ireland.

Saturday, 5th May 2018, 2:37 pm
Updated Thursday, 7th June 2018, 5:36 pm
Pope Francis walks past cardinals and bishops in the Tor Vergata neighborhood in Rome today, Saturday, May 5, 2018, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Neocatechumenal Way, one of the Catholic Church's biggest missionary movement. Protestant church leaders in Northern Ireland have urged him to visit the Province. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Unionist leaders should do likewise. They should not merely say that they will “accept” such a visit, which could fuel a sense among nationalists that unionists feel it is within their gift, but say that they positively welcome the prospect.

A papal visit is welcome for a simple reason: Almost everybody of note ultimately comes to Northern Ireland at some point in their life, from Chinese or American or European leaders, to sports and music stars and business and religious leaders, including the Dalai Lama.

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When Pope John Paul came to Ireland in 1979, the environment was radically different and he did not come north of the border. It was in the most violent decade of the Troubles and some of the most tense moments had not yet happened, such as the 1981 hunger strike.

There was deep suspicion of symbolism associated with one community or the other. The Queen only visited Northern Ireland once between 1968 and 1991 — on her Jubilee year of 1977.

The only possible objection now to a papal visit is a theological one held by fundamentalist, but the number of people who hold such views now make up a tiny fraction of the Protestant population — perhaps 3% of it. They will be free to protest if a visit happens.

I was seven in 1979 but remember the papal visit well, and being amazed by TV pictures of the vast crowd in Phoenix Park, reputedly a million people, even though I did not understand the visit or why our neighbours and close friends in Bangor were going to see him and we were not.

But the Republic has changed massively too, and a pope would not attract such adoration. We are all more pluralist, and an NI papal visit would reflect that.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor