What a papal visit to Ireland might look like
The Pope’s 2018 trip will be nothing like 1979, but that’s no bad thing, writes Michael Kelly

Few people who witnessed the momentous 1979 visit of Pope St John Paul II to Ireland will forget his youthful vigour. At 58 he was the youngest Pope in more than a century, and his energy was evident as he strode down the steps of the Aer Lingus flag carrier St Patrick before kneeling to kiss the tarmac at Dublin Airport. It was a gesture that the Polish Pontiff was to repeat all across the globe as he emphasised his love of the countries he visited.

In all, John Paul II visited 129 countries. He clocked up some 725,000 air miles and earned himself the title of the ‘Pilgrim Pope’. When asked why, in contrast to his predecessors, he travelled so much, the Pontiff replied that he got bored in the Vatican and needed to get out more!

Arguably, John Paul II did more to bring the papacy to the world than any of his predecessors. Thanks to his travels, Catholics in every corner of the globe got to see the Pope. In a sense, he became ‘Bishop of the world’.

The style of Pope Francis is somewhat different. For one, the Argentine lacks John Paul II’s polyglot linguistic ability. His obvious charisma is also somewhat under-stated. While John Paul comfortably adapted to his rock star status as Bishop of Rome, Francis prefers to speak to crowds in gestures.

Estimates say that some 2.5million Irish people turned out for the visit of John Paul II in 1979. That figure is all the more remarkable given that the population of the Republic was just 3.37million at the time. Francis’ 2018 visit will be nothing of the scale of 1979 – and that’s no bad thing. The Church is in a different place, and there’s a widespread acknowledgement among Church leaders that one-off jamboree-type events are little more than a moment in time unless they are accompanied by a process of faith formation.

So, what might the 2018 papal visit to Ireland look like?

There is one major health warning which must underpin all discussion of a visit by Francis: the fact that the Pope will be just a few months shy of his 82nd birthday by the time the World Meeting of Families is held in Dublin. Francis appears to have robust health at the moment, but two years is a long time for an elderly man. While planners will work on the assumption that the visit will happen, there is unlikely to be absolute confirmation until about six months beforehand.

The first point to keep in mind about the trip is that the visit is pastoral in nature. When a Pope visits a country, it is either a state visit (that is to say he is primarily coming as a Head of State to visit another Head of State) or a pastoral visit (primarily to visit the local Church). The World Meeting of Families is the key event, and there will be a concern that a papal visit to Ireland, if not handled sensitively, could overshadow that five-day event.

So, with the caveat out of the way that the Pope is coming first and foremost to participate in the family event, what else might a trip entail? Well, it is likely to be short. We might expect the Pontiff to arrive in Ireland on the afternoon of Friday August 24, 2018. Dublin seems like the likely arrival point, though it is by no means a must that the Pope arrive in the capital. 

Courtesy visits

There will be obvious courtesy visits with President Michael D. Higgins and other political leaders as well as senior Church leaders. The Pope is likely to hold a closed-door meeting with member of the Irish hierarchy, something which has tended to feature high on his agenda on other trips. 

The Pope has been invited to address the Seanad, if the trip pans out to be a weekend event, this is extremely unlikely – though it’s not impossible that Francis could address a specially-convened meeting of the joint Houses of the Oireachtas.

When he came to Ireland in 1979, Pope John Paul II lodged at the Apostolic Nunciature in Dublin – the same is likely to be true for Francis.

All the indications are that the Pope is likely to cross the border and make a visit to the North. This has been heightened by the positive reaction to news of the planned trip from Unionist leaders and prominent officials in the Protestant churches.


There was disappointment in 1979 that due to the security situation, John Paul II was unable to go North. Recently declassified papers from the British government show there was a concern that a papal visit could inflame tensions and lead to attacks on the Catholic community. 

While sectarianism remains an issue, the political situation has stabilised to such an extent that the leader of the DUP Arlene Foster conceded this week that she would meet the Pope if he comes to the North.

Armagh – as ecclesiastical capital – would seem a likely calling point for the Pope on the Saturday. The symbolism of the Archdiocese of Armagh straddling the border would also not be lost on planners. Any visit to the North must have an ecumenical character. We could expect at least a meeting – perhaps an ecumenical service in St Patrick’s Cathedral – to feature. 

There is also likely to be a large open-air public Mass somewhere in the North. Could the Stormont Estate prove to be the venue for such a gathering? Time will tell. Organisers, however, will be sensitive to hosting an event that may deter people from travelling to Dublin for the World Meeting of Families.

In the North, the Pope will certainly meet with leaders of the main political parties and his message is likely to be one of encouraging further progress on the road to reconciliation. The Pope will be conscious of the past, and a meeting with those who have suffered during the conflict in the North could well be on the agenda.

The Pope is unlikely to stay overnight in Northern Ireland and would likely return to Dublin that evening.

For Sunday – likely to be the final day of the visit – the focus is going to be firmly on the World Meeting of Families. There will be a Mass, similar to the one which ended the 2012 International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. Croke Park is an obvious venue for such a Mass, but given that the GAA championship season will be in full flow it may not be an option.

Phoenix Park remains one of the iconic memories from John Paul’s 1979 trip – though organisers may be fearful that choosing Phoenix Park for the major public papal Mass might give the impression that 2018 is expected to be a re-run of 1979.

Much attention will inevitably focus on whether or not Dublin and the North will be the Pope’s only destinations. People in the west of Ireland will undoubtedly be hopeful that the Pope will travel to their part of the world.

Visits to Marian shrines have been a key feature in visits Francis has made since his election in 2013. The Pope has a keen Marian devotion and, in fact, prays before an image of Our Lady before departing Rome on every trip. If he continues his tradition of visiting Marian shrines on his trips, Knock in Co. Mayo would seem ideally-placed. 

Given that events in Dublin are likely to end in the early afternoon of the Sunday, there’s ample time for the Pope to visit Knock on the Sunday afternoon. The vicinity of Ireland West Airport to the shrine also means that the Papal plane could easily take off from Knock on Sunday evening for the Pontiff’s return trip to Rome.

As well as set-piece events, the Pontiff is also likely to include a number of smaller yet significant meetings as part of his trip. Given the pain and suffering caused by clerical abuse, it seems almost certain that Francis will want to meet with people who have experienced abuse. The presence of Irishwoman Marie Collins in the body advising the Pope on the Church’s response to abuse means that he will be keenly aware of the effect the issue has had in Ireland.

Francis’ vision of the Church is as a community of believers who reaches out to the existential margins. A visit to a Church-run project working with marginalised communities is almost certain to feature. 

Somewhere like the Capuchin Day Centre in Dublin which provides meals for the homeless or one of the many projects run by the Fr Peter McVerry Trust would seem like obvious places.

Francis has also used his overseas trips to spend some time with a Jesuit community, so a Jesuit house in or around Dublin could also confidently expect a visit.

All of this, of course, is just educated guesswork. But, guesswork nonetheless. Francis has established himself as a ‘Pope of surprises’ and papal visits don’t always follow the same template.

As the visit approaches, there will be inevitable fretting about numbers and finances. Fundraising will be a major issue: it takes a lot of resources to put on an event like the World Meeting of Families, the Papal visit adds considerably to this. 

While there is the obvious expectation that the civil authorities will provide the necessary security arrangements, responsibility for logistics around the religious events will be firmly with the Church.

While events will be expensive to cover, one idea that organisers should avoid is the temptation to sell tickets to attend Papal events. Such an approach was adopted by Church authorities in Britain when Benedict XVI visited in 2010. 

While the ticket price was modest, as well as leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of many believers, it goes against the basic principle at the heart of a papal visit: namely that anyone who wants to be able to see the Pope when he visits their country, should be able to do – and should be able to do so without paying a fee.