Ireland must avoid repeating the mistakes of St John Paul II's visit in 1979

Finally it looks like people are starting to believe that Pope Francis will visit Ireland.

In May Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin revealed that on being invited to Dublin, the Pontiff answered, “I will come,” adding, “if I don’t come, my successor will come”, but Dublin diocesan sources maintained that while the Pope hoped to attend 2018’s World Meeting of Families, it was too early to tell if Ireland was due for her second papal visit.

Now, though, it seems that papal visit is as certain as it can be, with Taoiseach Enda Kenny describing how the Pope has confirmed that he shall visit in 2018.

Cynics are already dismissing the plan, with one of the hoariest of clichés being that the trip can’t but look like a disappointment: nobody realistically expects a repeat of 1979, when 2.7 million people gathered to see St John Paul – my infant self being one of the million who walked to the Phoenix Park in Dublin, gathering in the largest crowd of Irish people ever to cheer the Polish Pope.

Still, although the Irish Church is older and more chastened now, it’s far from dead: Catholic practice in the North is more robust than in the Republic, where upwards of 1.25 million people attend Mass every week. While Church teaching in the Republic may be honoured more in the breach than the observance, it’s striking that around 3.8 million people in the 26 counties continue to nail their colours to the Catholic mast. Even if the numbers who line out in 2018 don’t come close to rivalling those from 1979, they’ll be far from negligible.

The most exciting prospect about the upcoming visit is almost certainly the likelihood that the Pope will visit the North, something St John Paul could not realistically do at the height of the Troubles. Granted, the peace in the North remains fragile and tentative, but the days when condemnations of the Pope as Anti-Christ were anything other than fringe insults are long gone. Indeed, prominent Protestants have expressed real hopes that the Pope could help draw some of the anti-Catholic venom out of the Northern body politic.

Whether Francis will visit Armagh, the country’s ecclesiastical capital since history’s greatest Briton began his mission to the Irish, or the Presbyterian heartland of Belfast where the monks of Clonard monastery did heroic work for peace throughout the Troubles remains to be seen.

Whatever happens, though, a visit to the North seems even more likely this time than the widely expected papal pilgrimage to Knock, Ireland’s uniquely Eucharistic national Marian shrine.

Just as history showed St John Paul’s 1979 trip as marking a high-water mark of a certain kind of Catholicism, one that was outwardly healthy but concealing all manner of troubles, so it shall be for history to reveal the significance of Francis’s 2018 visit.

One thing is clear, though: in 1979 the Irish bishops, like their British colleagues would do in 1982, failed to capitalise on the opportunities for sharing, explaining, and giving real effect to the Faith, that that year’s papal visit brought. There can be no excuses for doing that again.

Greg Daly writes for The Irish Catholic and tweets as @GregDalyIC