Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, has joined the Bishop of Derry, Dónal McKeown, in calling on Pope Francis to consider visiting his flock in the North when he travels to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families in August.
Speaking in the Dáil she said Pope Francis’ travel plans were first and foremost a matter for the Holy See.
Nevertheless, Deputy McDonald said she was convinced a visit to one of the Catholic Church’s northern dioceses would be a gesture that would be hugely appreciated by the faithful here.
“I want to raise a point that has been made to me very strongly north of the border, namely, a desire that the Pope visit Ireland in its totality,” she said.
“As the Ceann Comhairle knows, there have been some words to this effect from within the church itself, particularly from the Bishop of Derry, Dónal McKeown, who spoke on Sunday and reflected accurately the view of many people in the North who would wish to see Pope Francis visit,” she added.
The Sinn Féin President was speaking after Bishop McKeown said he believed there was still time for the Vatican to pencil in a northern visit.
“I think we would want to take the feelings of the big congregations that we still have here in the North, make those heard in the Vatican.
“We are still five months out...to reconsider the decision and have a short visit to the North,” he told the BBC at the weekend.
Pope Francis’ visit will mark only the second ever trip to Ireland by a leader of the Catholic Church.
But to date his itinerary over August 25 and 26, includes appearances only at Croke Park and Phoenix Park in Dublin.
In 1979 Pope John Paul II travelled to Dublin, Clonmacnoise, Galway, Knock, Limerick, Maynooth and Drogheda but never made it to the North.
Many Catholics have expressed disappointment that the current Holy Father does not plan crossing the border to at least visit Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland.
Ironically, that border itself was ultimately precipitated by a Papal Bull, the ‘Laudabiliter,’ of one of Pope Francis’ predecessors Pope Adrian IV, the only ever English pope, who in 1155, granted Henry II of England the right to invade Ireland. The Bull was used as the original legal justification for English rule in Ireland for centuries.
But while Pope Francis is unlikely to address that particular issue he will be asked to address the recent horrors of institutional abuse.
Deputy McDonald said: “We all know there has been a long debate and a lot of hurt reflected owing to abuse in the church. There is an appetite among many victims and survivors for reconciliation and recognition of this hurt by the church. I have no special call on the thinking, mind or actions of the Pope or Catholic Church but I hope they reflect on that and respond appropriately.”
The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, addressing the Sinn Féin leader’s call for the Pope to visit the North, said: “That is a matter for Pope Francis to decide.”
Speaking to the BBC at the weekend, Bishop McKeown said: “I do think people in the north have come through terrible times...I really think that there would be many people who would appreciate an opportunity to display just how far we have come and reflect on the past.
“It is very unfortunate that, for whatever reason - and I am not privy to those discussions - north of the border doesn’t appear to be on the agenda for a Papal visit.”