Following their meeting in Rome, Higgins has raised the prospect of Pope Francis visiting Northern Ireland when he visits Dublin next year, according to RTÉ.
Irish President Michael D. Higgins will meet with Pope Francis, 22 May, in Rome, two days ahead of U.S. President Donald Trump’s more attention-grabbing visit to the Vatican.
Higgins and the pontiff will discuss “issues of regional and global importance,” according to a press statement. They are also sure to talk about Pope Francis attending the August 2018 World Meeting of Families in Dublin.
The pope’s trip to the island of Ireland has fueled speculation of a possible side visit to Northern Ireland, which would match or surpass the historic 2011 state visit of Queen Elizabeth II to the Republic. Her trip came 100 years after her grandfather, King George V, became the last British royal to travel to what became independent Ireland after the island’s 1921 political partition. Higgins reciprocated the Queen’s visit in 2014 when he became the first Irish president to make a state visit to the United Kingdom.
Pope John Paul II visited the Republic in 1979, but he did not travel to the North, then in the thick of sectarian violence known as the Troubles. One can only imagine what sort of reception he would have received at the time from the late unionist firebrand Rev. Ian Paisley.
“I denounce you, Anti-Christ! I refuse you as Christ’s enemy and Antichrist with all your false doctrine,” Paisley yelled at the pontiff in a 1988 visit to the European Parliament. Paisley eventually entered a power-sharing government with Catholics, including former IRA man Martin McGuinness.
Six years ago, Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny criticized the “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, and narcissism” of the Catholic Church for its handling of clergy abuse of children in Ireland. Rome recalled its papal nuncio to Ireland, reporting at the time to Pope Benedict XVI. The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs closed its embassy in the Vatican, ostensibly as a cost-cutting measure. It reopened in 2014.
Kenny, who just announced his resignation, met with Pope Francis in November 2016 and offered his “full support” for next year’s World Families visit. The lesson here seems to be that whatever is true of today’s political dynamics, they most likely will change in the future. The pontiff and Trump might even patch up their previous disagreement.
For an exploration of an earlier rift between Ireland and the Vatican, read my piece about the troubled founding of St. Patrick’s Church in Rome during the Irish Land War period of the 1880s.
Higgins’ itinerary also includes a visit with Irish clergy and lay staff working at the Vatican during a reception at the Pontifical Irish College in Rome. Founded in 1628, it is the last of the many Irish Colleges that were once scattered over Europe when it was not possible to educate priests in Ireland, the college website says.