It has now been confirmed that Pope Francis will visit Ireland – south and north – in August 2018, and already some Dublin politicians are fretting that he might make a “controversial” statement about abortion during the visit. (There will very probably be an abortion referendum at this time.) Who knows? Francis is just as likely to reprimand the Irish for taking relatively few refugees (only 500 so far, from a pledge to take 4,000) and turning down many asylum applications.
But it’s interesting how little disapprobation there has been from Unionists in Northern Ireland to the planned presence of Francis in Armagh, the ecclesiastical Irish capital (which is, of course, within the northern state).
When Ian Paisley was alive, a protest against the pope from ultra-Protestants could always be relied upon. Paisley never ceased his colourful invective about “the scarlet woman of Rome” and “the whore of Babylon” – the Catholic Church – or his description of the pontiff as “the Antichrist”. Even in the last years of his life, he managed a demonstration against Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain in 2010.
But following Paisley’s demise in 2014, the Belfast commentator Newton Emerson reports that it’s proving difficult to find Ulster Protestants to denounce Pope Francis or say he isn’t welcome. Arlene Foster, the Democratic Unionist Party First Minister, issued a neutral statement, saying that she would meet the Pope in her capacity “as head of state”.
But Protestant clerics were more inclined to a note ecumenism, allowing that Catholics were entitled to a “pastoral visit”. Dr John Dunlop, a former Presbyterian moderator, said it would be a good opportunity for the Protestant community to “get over institutionalised anti-Catholicism”.
Let’s not predict anything in these uncertain times, but what I’ve seen in Northern Ireland is a very gradual understanding of an axiom advanced in the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Focus on the similarities, not on the differences.” And Pope Francis’s cordial personality has surely played a part, too.
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