Professional and personal pilgrimage for the Taoiseach

Enda Kenny’s meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican had the hallmarks of a formal state visit, but it felt like an intimate family gathering where strained relations were finally addressed, writes Juno McEnroe

Professional and personal pilgrimage for the Taoiseach

It was a personal pilgrimage as well as a professional one for the Taoiseach. Just before 10am, the Irish delegation drove across St Peter’s Square and into the a courtyard behind the main papal buildings and St Peter’s Basilica.

Mr Kenny, his wife Fionnuala, and others were met by suited lay attendants. Colourfully dressed Swiss Guards lined up and marched alongside the entourage.

As the delegation walked through magnificent marble corridors of the Vatican, members of the media were quietly shuffled into a secret narrow corridor surrounding the rooms.

“Andiamo, andiamo [Let’s go],” whispered a Vatican minder as cameramen and journalists scuffled down a dimly light passage. If truth be told, it felt briefly like a moment from Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.

Meanwhile, the Taoiseach-led delegation made their way further inside the palatial building to the papal library, where the smiling pontiff greeted Mr Kenny. With only a translator present, they spoke privately.

After almost 30 minutes, a bell rang and the cameras were permitted access again. It was mysterious to say the least.

Mr Kenny and the pontiff got to their feet and the Irish delegation came in, one by one. Fionnuala Kenny, dressed in velvet black — the recommended colour for visitors to the pontiff — stepped forward and warmly shook his hand. There was a little joking between all three which relaxed the room, especially when the Pope showed a wide smile.

You would have sworn the three were in Croke Park at a match, given the serene feeling. Mr Kenny introduced the remainder of the delegation, including his chief of staff Mark Kennelly, Department of Foreign Affairs director general Eoin O’Leary, Irish ambassador to the Holy See Emma Madigan, and other staff.

Amid the smiles, the Taoiseach and the Pope exchanged gifts. Mr Kenny presented a print of a Harry Clarke stained glass window from Kilmaine Church in Mayo, depicting the holy family. Francis’s offering was an etching of the old design of the basilica of St Peter’s. The Pope also presented his visitors with blessed rosary beads. One set was in honour of Mr Kenny’s late mother, Eithne, whose anniversary fell this week.

“She’s in heaven,” said the Taoiseach pointing upwards. It was then time to go.

But, before departing, Fionnuala Kenny said: “Hopefully we’ll see you in Ireland.” Was this a sign. a political one? Does Enda intend staying on as Taoiseach until then or was Mrs Kenny just being polite?

The Taoiseach made his way to meet Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin where formal matters were discussed, including religious-run schools and Ireland’s abortion laws. Mr Kenny also said he discussed the same-sex marriage referendum with Cardinal Parolin, who previously declared Ireland’s yes vote as a “defeat for humanity”. Clearly Mr Kenny disagrees and said he told the Vatican official why a yes vote reflected voters’ opinion and allowed people to now “live” their lives.

“He [the cardinal] understands that very clearly and accepts that utterly,” said the Taoiseach.

And this was all part of the day. So relaxed, yet addressing issues so explosive for the Church. It will now be the turn of Pope Francis to prepare for his visit to Ireland.

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