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Both men gifted one another sculptures that portray the plight of migrants. Áras an Uachtaráin
speaking frankly

‘I don’t give instructions to the Pope’: Higgins on his latest audience with Pope Francis

President Higgins revealed that he and Pope Francis sometimes speak in Spanish during their meetings.

Diarmuid Pepper reporting from Rome:

“WE SOMETIMES HAVE little bits of Spanish in what we say,” President Michael D Higgins told reporters following a fourth private meeting with Pope Francis today.

President Higgins is a big admirer of the current Pope, commenting during his five-day trip to Rome that Francis had admonished the world for “bad faith” when it comes to issues like caring for migrants and the environment.

Speaking after their meeting this afternoon, he seemed satisified he had the measure of the Pontiff. 

“What has been the significant mark of the conversations I’ve had with Pope Francis, is those conversations are very much in the context of his own background as a South American Bishop and coming from Argentina,” said Higgins.

“And he often raises issues of the heart and this is very much the key to understanding why is reaching out to people, for example, in the LGBT community, and then to those who feel that they haven’t been labelled as Catholics.

“His heart is open and he refers to that very often.”

President Higgins then said that Pope Francis’ “heart is in the right place” but worried that on every meeting with the Pontiff, he gets the “sense” that he “faces grave difficulties from the institution of which is the head”.

The conservative wing of the Catholic Church has long been at odds with Pope Francis, claiming that he risks creating confusion and division in the Church and expressing worries over doctrinal changes on issues such as gay rights or celibacy.

“He’s not excluding,” said President Higgins this afternoon.

But he added: “Of course there are issues where there is a huge distance. Women should be participating fully as equals at every level and at every policy decision in relation to the Church and its administration and that’s a tough journey, even for him.”

Last month, Pope Francis hit out at the “fanaticism of indifference” that greets migrants seeking a better life.

In recognition of this, President Higgins today presented Pope Francis with a sculpture entitled ‘The Expelled’ by renowned Irish sculptor John Behan.

A key theme in Behan’s work has been displacement of people and emigration, with a strong focus in recent years on depictions of the experiences of refugees around the world.

President Higgins praised Pope Francis for drawing public attention to the plight of refugees and migrants across the world.

When asked by The Journal about the presentation of this sculpture, President Higgins said that Behan was “very, very pleased and honoured to know that it was going to Pope Francis”.

“He took great interest in the piece,” said Higgins.

He added that “migration is the natural condition of the human species”.

“We have to realise too what talent we have taken from some of the neediest parts of the world,” said President Higgins.

“Could we run the Irish health system without the migrants who have come and enabled us to run it?”

Both men appeared to be on a similar wavelength, as Pope Francis also gifted President Higgins a bronze sculpture dedicated to migrants, alongside a copy of the Pope’s Message for the 2023 World Peace Day, signed by himself.

President Higgins then revealed to reporters that he also gifted Pope Francis a translated copy of his poem ‘The Prophets are Weeping’.

‘Open meeting’

President Higgins told reporters that he and the Pontiff had an “open” meeting, discussing topics such as migration, climate change, and the war in Ukraine.

He was then asked if he had a message for Pope Francis on the need for the Church to be more inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community.

President Higgins replied: “We had a discussion in our last meeting on the dignity of the human body.

“I think certainly in relation to the whole area of dignity and respect, I don’t give instructions to the Pope.

“But the Pope knows where I stand myself in relation to just respecting the expressions of the human body but also expressing it in all its circumstances, cultures and freedoms, and he has no difficulties with that.

“But of course, he faces grave difficulties from the institution of which is the head and I think I get a sense of that nearly every time I meet him but his heart is in the right place.” 

However, President Higgins claimed that theology was not one of the topics spoken about.

When asked what changes Pope Francis could initiate in the Church, President Higgins replied: “Well, I haven’t discussed theology with him.

“I haven’t gone into the notion as to the source of doctrinal fundamentals.”

But he added that there’s been a “great transition” within the Catholic Church under his papacy in “recognising the ‘Church of the Poor’”.

Meanwhile, a historic Synod is currently ongoing within the Vatican and topics to be addressed include the place of LGBTQ+ people within the Church and whether women should be ordained.

This is also the first Synod where women have the ability to vote in the process.

“The Synod, it is a very important process,” said President Higgins.

The Synod has generated controversy among conservative Catholics for its inclusion of priests and bishops who have often publicly challenged the Church’s teaching on LGBTQ+ issues.

President Higgins welcomed Pope Francis for “allowing people back into the discussion” who had previously been silenced on LGBTQ+ issues.

“I don’t want to embarrass them by naming them,” said President Higgins, “but I wish that would proceed.

“There are people who have been excluded from the discourse that should have been long, long back and people have been deeply wounded by this.

“But that is his business, I’m simply President of Ireland.”

- Diarmuid Pepper is reporting from Rome and you can follow on X, formerly known as Twitter, at @Diarmuid_9

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