John Paul to Visit Emerald Isle?

Contrary to recent press reports, no firm decisions have been taken for the Pope to visit Ireland this year, although the likelihood of a papal trip has grown, an Irish bishop has said.

Diocese of Meath Bishop Michael Smith, who heads a subcommittee of bishops in charge of organizing celebrations to mark the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's first visit to Ireland, told the Register that any confirmation of a papal trip would come “closer to the time” the trip might take place.

However, the news that John Paul definitely will not attend the 48th International Eucharistic Congress in Mexico in October has made the possibility of a shorter visit to Ireland “more likely,” Bishop Smith said.

This September or next spring are the likeliest times for any trip, though Bishop Smith also emphasized that “no decisions at all” have been made.

No Vatican official was willing to comment on the plans of the Pope.

The Holy Father last visited Ireland in 1979 when he became the first Pope ever to set foot in the country.

Any visit could also be as momentous, with speculation of a first papal trip to Northern Ireland and John Paul's long-held wish to celebrate Mass in the province. Armagh is considered to be the probable destination.

But any decision about the Pope visiting Northern Ireland would depend on the permission of the British government, which would have to mount a massive security operation to protect him. It would also depend on the Pope's health.

In 1979, the Holy Father was unable to visit the north due to security fears, instead staying at Drogheda, one of the nearest towns to the border.

In Drogheda, John Paul made an impassioned plea for an end to sectarian hatred and the killing that had been done in its name. They were words that “had a strong resonance with the people,” Bishop Smith said.

“I think what he said took a while to sink in, for people to realize the importance of upholding what was right,” the bishop said, adding that he believes they were words the Holy Father “would rather have said in Northern Ireland.”

“The Pope has expressed many times during his pontificate,” Bishop Smith added, “a willingness to complete that visit.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.