Pope Benedict XVI was invited Wednesday to visit Northern Ireland by the British government, and is considering the possibility.

The invitation came from Britain’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Shaun Woodward, who met the Holy Father after his weekly General Audience.

“It’s very clearly something in his mind,” Woodward said, “but there are some matters that the Pope should rightly be allowed to decide on because he makes very good judgments about when the time is right.” The invitation comes three months after British Prime Minister Gordon Brown invited the Pope to visit Britain.

Woodward had come to Rome to thank the Pope and the Vatican for their support in the Northern Irish peace process. The Vatican, Woodward said, has continued to “show a strong interest in maintaining the peace process and the Pope was very supportive of all those who have worked to establish and nurture the peace.”

He said the Pope expressed “his concern and deep sorrow” at the murders by dissident groups of two soldiers and a Catholic policeman in March. Said Woodward, “He has clearly followed events closely and was obviously moved. We discussed the particular pain for the families and he was very concerned for their welfare.”

Woodward said the March murders didn’t derail the peace process, but instead united local communities against any return to violence.

The British government minister said he believes a visit by the Pope would focus the world’s attention on a conflict which has been miraculously brought to an end, and so encourage other areas suffering from entrenched violence and war — especially the Middle East — to believe that peace is possible.

Pope John Paul II came close to visiting Northern Ireland in 1979 but was unable to cross the border from Ireland due to security concerns.