BELFAST – In the run-up to the Vatican’s announcement in July of the itinerary for Pope Francis’s August 25-26 visit to Dublin for the World Meeting of Families, there was considerable buzz around the idea of a quick stop in Northern Ireland – possibly to meet Queen Elizabeth II, possibly on his own.

In the abstract, it seemed a natural for this “pope of the peripheries.” Francis is obviously passionate about reconciliation and dialogue, about breaking cycles of violence and mistrust, especially where the scars of conflict run the deepest. Plus, it’s well-known that the last time a pope came to Ireland, St. John Paul II wanted to visit the north but was prevented from doing so by the security situation – an obstacle that no longer would get in the way almost 40 years later.

In the end, however, Francis isn’t going. The usual reasons given as to why – the diplomatic complications of crossing a national border, the fact that Northern Ireland is in political turmoil right now and the pope’s presence might further destabilize the situation, even that a stop in the north could overshadow the World Meeting of Families – strike many observers as less than completely convincing.

At Crux, we were curious as to how the roughly two million or so Catholics in Northern Ireland are feeling about the papal no-show. This week, Inés San Martín, our Rome Bureau Chief; Claire Giangravé, our Faith and Values Correspondent; and I are moving around Northern Ireland, in part to try to take the temperature of the place.

To listen to an old friend of mine tell it, Catholics here aren’t wild about the fact that once again, a pope will be right next door but isn’t bothering to stop by.

“It’s a big deal,” said Martin O’Brien, one of Northern Ireland’s most distinguished journalists and probably its best-known writer and commentator on Catholic affairs. I’ve known him now for the better part of twenty years.

“There’s an especially deep disappointment among Catholics who take the faith very seriously,” he said.

Born in County Fermanagh, O’Brien started out as a reporter for the Belfast Telegraph in 1978. He went on to work for the BBC for 28 years, and for 15 of those years he produced a regular Sunday show from Belfast – making him arguably the most prominent religion reporter in one of the most religiously troubled spots on earth.

Now he’s in business for himself doing freelance writing, communications/ media consultancy/training/speech writing and speech coaching, as well as serving as part-time Northern Correspondent for our friends at the Irish Catholic.

As O’Brien pointed out to us, this is actually the fourth time a pope has traveled somewhere in the British Isles without stopping in Northern Ireland:

  • John Paul II in 1979
  • John Paul II in Great Britain in 1982
  • Benedict XVI in the United Kingdom in 2010
  • Francis in Ireland in 2018

O’Brien said the omission hurts, and not because it means the “chief pastor of the Church isn’t coming to visit his flock here.”

More than that, he suggested, Catholics here feel they have a special claim on some love from the pope.

“Given everything we’ve been through, and given that this pope is probably the greatest moral voice in the world today, it’s hard to understand why he wouldn’t come here to speak to our experiences and the challenges we face,” O’Brien said.

We asked O’Brien what he thought the opportunity cost will be of Francis’s no-show … in other words, what might have been had he come?

“You cannot underestimate the impact of certain profound, set-piece events that have become great symbols of reconciliation here,” he said. “These things can make a huge difference in shaping attitudes.”

He cited a 2012 meeting between Queen Elizabeth II and Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander who at the time was the deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, at a charity event in Belfast. O’Brien also mentioned the state visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland a year earlier, and a joint toast to the Queen in which McGuinness participated – while a band played “God Save the Queen,” no less – at a dinner at Windsor Palace in 2014.

“These moments helped to deconsolidate prejudice and promote reconciliation,” he said. O’Brien said that the imagery of a pope being welcomed warmly by all the religious leaders of Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants alike, could have had a similar impact.

Right now, O’Brien said, would have been a great moment for such a shot in the arm.

Northern Ireland is set later this month to achieve the dubious distinction of being the country with the longest period without a functioning government, after a power-sharing arrangement between Protestant and Catholic (read “Unionist” and “Nationalist”) parties collapsed in January 2017.

Though no one seriously believes “The Troubles” are on their way back, O’Brien said, in the sense of armed sectarian conflict, there is deep anxiety about the failure to realize the hoped-for social transformation after the 1998 Good Friday accord, and the pope might have been able to supply a new lease on life.

“A pope coming to the last redoubt of medieval bigotry in these islands and being welcome across the board would have been massively important,” he said.

“Right now, we need big moments,” O’Brien said. “Beneath that level there’s a lot of hard work that has to done, of course, but there have been these seminal moments that made a difference.”

For precisely that reason, he said, there’s a “very fervent hope” that Francis will make a stand-alone visit to Northern Ireland sometime soon – adding that he’s aware there’s some “very intense lobbying” right now to try to make that happen.

We’ll see whether that lobbying succeeds. In the meantime, San Martín, Giangravé and I will be off tomorrow to ponder another great “What might have been?” chapter of history, this one about soaring dreams and grand ambitions snuffed out almost immediately by colossal misjudgment and, ultimately, hubris.

We’re going, in other words, to visit the Titanic museum, in the city where the ship was designed, built and launched. As it turns out, there’s a strong Catholic angle on the Titanic legend – but that’s tomorrow’s story to tell.