BELFAST – Despite the disappointment many Catholics in Northern Ireland feel that Pope Francis won’t be coming their way on his 32-hour visit to the island, Bishop Noel Treanor says “excitement and anticipation” for the World meeting of Families is palpable.
Treanor’s diocese of Down and Connor includes Belfast, the capital city. He acknowledged many Catholics here were hoping Pope Francis would include a stop in the north on his itinerary.
“At the time the decision [not to come] became know, there was a sense of an expectation that hadn’t been met. People were disappointed and would have loved to see the pope coming,” Treanor said in an interview with Crux in his Belfast residence.
While Pope John Paul II did not visit in 1979 at the peak of “the Troubles”, there was widespread hope that changed circumstances might allow Francis to hop on a helicopter bound north from Dublin.
“It was well known that the churches were welcoming of a papal visit,” Treanor said, referring not just to Catholics but their Protestant counterparts. “We certainly hope that it might be possible for him [to come] in the not-so-distant future, his health considered.”
The bishop estimates the number of Catholics traveling from the Diocese for the World Meeting of Families in Dublin next week will range in the thousands, many of whom are eager to see the pope on Aug. 24-26. He said there’s been “much interest” in Northern Ireland, and the diocese has seen strong participation in events leading up to the summit.
According to Treanor, there will “be different expectations” by those going on this pilgrimage to the Irish Republic. While most “want to experience Pope Francis” and the charisma exuding from his pontificate, he said, others will be looking for answers to issues confronting the Catholic Church today.
No doubt a major topic will be clerical sexual abuse in Ireland and the world, with recent developments appearing to confirm an endemic and widespread crisis.
“Those who have been victims of child sexual abuse will expect a word, a message, an apology and words of consolation” he said, “They will expect a reaffirmation of the commitment to safeguarding.”
Treanor, ordained in 1976, pursued his studies in theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Later, he served in Brussels with the Commission of the Bishop’ Conferences in the European Community (COMECE) where he worked to imbue Christian values within the European political and economic framework.
In March 31, 1993, he was made Secretary General of the commission and continued to hold that position until when he was appointed bishop by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008.
Upon returning, Treanor said, he recognized that the abuse crisis would be a major test for the credibility of the local Church and with the support of the Diocesan Safeguarding Office and a large number of volunteers across parishes within the Diocese, he sought to address the safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults with determination.
Building on the work of his predecessor, Bishop Patrick Walsh, Treanor commissioned an external and independent review in 2011 conducted by professional experts in child protection outside of the Church as well as the review by the NBSCCCI in 2012.
“The Diocese brought people in to undertake an external and independent review,” Treanor said.
One practical sign of the work done to ensure protection of minors and Church accountability is that it’s almost impossible to walk into a chapel or parish in Belfast without seeing signs inviting faithful to speak out, providing clear guidelines for reporting abuse and for seeking help.
Empowering laity, Treanor said, has also been a priority. In developing a pastoral plan, the bishop engaged in a Listening Process with the aid of some 70 people sent out into the parishes of the diocese, among the largest in Ireland, to “listen and talk to people” in order to “pick up a barometer of interest.”
“Christianity is a faith of incarnation,” Treanor said. “We the people have a mission to do our best to render the values and virtues of the Kingdom of God concrete.”
According to the bishop, now more than ever, “concretizing the mission of the Church in the modern world” is essential. In these challenging times, he said, the Catholic Church cannot hide from the world but must figure out the means to engage with secularism and its negative and positive aspects.
“What is evolving nowadays is not something of which one needs to be fearful, but a new apprehension of the secular as a reality in which we all live,” Treanor said.
“If the governance of the secular order is not well grounded in social and social-ethical concern, if it is not well-infused with a concern for virtue, there is the capacity for evil and failure and, indeed, risk increases for ultimate destruction,” he added.
Some of the big changes rippling across Ireland, especially its understanding of family life following referenda to legalize gay marriage and abortion, will be at the forefront of the World Meeting of Families next week.
“I hope that this country will rise to the global and historical challenges of this kind of event,” Treanor said. “In my mind, these challenges for family life provide the vectors along which we develop the kind of discourse and action of which society has need in order to give expression to the dignity of the human person.”