EIGHT months into office, a Government decision was taken to close our embassy to the Holy See. Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore said “while the embassy to the Holy See was one of Ireland’s oldest missions, it yielded no economic return.”
For the vast majority of the faithful in Ireland this was a historic turning point. Many decried use of the economic argument when issues such as human rights, the promotion of social justice and the elimination of poverty which characterise the work of the Holy See are not fiscally quantifiable.
A week later many drew solace from sentiments expressed in the inaugural address of our president Michael D Higgins: “Now it is time to turn to an older wisdom that, while respecting material comfort and security as a basic right of all, also recognises that many of the most valuable things in life cannot be measured.”
After this announcement a young Dublin mother found it incredulous that a government would make this decision. She said Ireland was compelled to stand up and this became the inspiration for a new lay initiative. On November 28, Ireland Stand Up launched a postcard campaign respectfully requesting that Taoiseach Enda Kenny reverse the decision and to extend an invitation to Pope Benedict XVI for the 50th International Eucharistic Congress. The demand for postcards soared into thousands.
Ireland’s historic links with the Holy See go back to 432AD when Pope Celestine 1 sent St Patrick to Ireland. More than 1,000 years later in 1607, a sad chapter in our history witnessed Ireland’s noble elite leave Donegal to find refuge in Europe. They were given exile in Rome.
Three centuries later a memorandum from envoy Sean T O’Kelly to Pope Benedict XV made the case for Vatican recognition of the Republic. Following the 1929 Lateran Treaty between the Kingdom of Italy and the Holy See, the Irish Free State exchanged envoys for the first time.
In 1930, Ireland’s first papal nuncio, Paschal Robinson, was appointed. In 1941 Dr Thomas J Kiernan became Ireland’s Minister Plenipotentiary to the Holy See. The Irish legation was the only English-speaking legation to remain open after the US entered the war. His wife, Delia Murphy, assisted Hugh O’Flaherty (the “Vatican pimpernel”), hiding Jews and escaped allied soldiers from the Nazis. In 1943, when Italy changed sides, many escaped POWs were helped by the legation to leave Italy.
After the war Ireland purchased Villa Nobili Spada to house our resident ambassador for £146,000. Its location on Gianicolo Hill, near the church of San Pietro in Montorio, where the Ulster Earls, the O’Neills and the O’Donnells, are buried was an influential factor in its acquisition. It is Ireland’s most valuable property abroad.
One of the first people to support Ireland Stand Up was Eileen Aiken, daughter of former Minister Frank Aiken who with Eamon DeValera opened the Embassy in 1946.
The Vatican has diplomatic relations with 179 countries and, with Ireland downgraded to non-residential status, it leaves 80 resident embassies, including Russia and Cuba. The embassy works closely with the Holy See on a range of international political, economic, developmental and human rights issues.
In June the 50th International Eucharistic Congress, which is akin to the Catholic Olympics, will take place in Dublin. Some 25,000 people across five continents will gather each day for eight days and the event will culminate in 80,000 at the closing ceremony in Croke Park.
It will bring spiritual and economic benefits to Dublin.
This occasion affords the Government a unique opportunity to extend an invitation, as Gordon Brown did, to Pope Benedict XVI.
Last Wednesday, Ireland Stand Up met 61 TDs in person, 14 senators in person and six government representatives including David Cooney, Ireland’s new non-resident ambassador and John Kennedy representing the Taoiseach. There was overwhelming support from all the political representatives. Ireland Stand Up now enters another phase of the campaign.