Vatican official says Pope planning Ireland trip

Francis will be the first to visit Ireland since John Paul II in 1979

Pope Francis plans to visit Ireland in August next year, a top Vatican official said Thursday, four months after Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny announced what will be a landmark trip.

Francis, 80, "will do everything he can", to attend the World Meeting of Families, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, a senior Vatican official, told journalists, as he announced plans and final dates (August 21-26, 2018) for the ninth edition of the gathering of Catholic families.

Francis will be the first pope to visit Ireland since John Paul II in 1979. The country has undergone momentous social and economic change since then and the Church's influence in what was once one of the most fervently Catholic countries in the world is now greatly reduced.

Kenny ruffled feathers by announcing the pope's plans to visit Ireland after an audience at the Vatican in November, at which point the Holy See had not even confirmed any of the pontiff's 2017 travel plans.

The Taoiseach, as the Irish premier is titled, has praised Francis for improving the Catholic Church's efforts to combat sex abuse by clerics -- an issue on which he had accused the Vatican of "dysfunction, disconnection and elitism" in 2011.

At their meeting in November, Kenny and Francis discussed the possibility of the pope's visit including a leg in Northern Ireland.

No decisions have been made on that front amid fears of the region's peace deal unravelling due to Britain's decision to leave the European Union.

The decline of the Church's influence in Ireland was underlined in 2015 when 62 percent of voters approved the legalisation of gay marriage.

And the Catholic hierarchy is battling to defend the country's constitutional ban on abortion, which political observers expect to be put to a new referendum next year, possibly soon after Francis visits.

Cardinal Farrell told reporters the theme of the 2018 World Families Meetings would be the Church's conception of married life between a man and a woman.

The last gathering of its kind, in Philadelphia in 2015, was also addressed by Francis, who has made family life one of the central themes of his papacy.

In his convocation to the Dublin meeting, the Argentine pontiff asks: "Does the family continue to be good news for today's world?"

He answers: "I am sure the answer is yes! And this 'yes' is firmly based on God's plan.

"The love of God is his 'yes' to all creation and at the heart of this latter is man. It is God's 'yes' to the union between man and woman, in openness and service to life in all its phases; it is God's 'yes' and his commitment to a humanity that is often wounded, mistreated and dominated by a lack of love."

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