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Papal visit could inspire change in the Church

The idea of Pope Francis accepting Archbishop Tartaglia's invitation to come to Glasgow next March at such short notice - short notice for a pope anyway - is not as unlikely as it might first appear.

Papal visits such as Pope Benedict's to Glasgow in 2010 usually take several years to organise but Francis is different. He appears to favour papal visits with less pomp than has been usual, which means a visit to Scotland in 2015 to mark the 400th anniversary of the martyrdom of St John Ogilvie is entirely possible.

It would also be welcome at a time when the Catholic Church in Scotland is still trying to recover from the troubles of 2013 including the Cardinal O'Brien scandal and the emergence of further historic abuse cases, this time at the Fort Augustus Boarding School. All of it left the church in Scotland in a pretty depressed state last year.

From the beginning of his papacy, Francis had the potential to change that and there is evidence he is doing so. His accessibility, humility and global popularity has helped lift morale in the pews; it may even have helped stabilise the fall in congregations. His recent appointments in Scotland - most notably Leo Cushley as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh and John Keenan as the Bishop of Paisley - are also indications of a new direction.

On the issue of abuse, which overshadowed much of Pope Benedict's papacy, there are some definite steps forward as well. Last month, for instance, Thomas Mullen, a priest from Dunfermline at the centre of abuse allegations, was dismissed and the Maltese Bishop Charles Scicluna has already been to Scotland as part of his investigation into sexual misconduct claims around Cardinal O'Brien. The McLellan Commission, which will look into how the church handles abuse cases, has also started its work.

A visit to Scotland by the pope has the potential to support, and perhaps accelerate, this change. It would not be on the scale of Benedict's visit, with its procession through Edinburgh and huge Glasgow mass, but a visit on a smaller scale has just as much, if not greater, potential to make a significant impact. Pope Francis's humble, simple visits around the world have resonated strongly with the faithful, and beyond, as well as attracting global headlines. Glasgow could be the same.

The visit also has great ecumenical potential, as Archbishop Tartaglia says in his invitation. The celebrations, he said, would focus on the common causes of Christians and other people of faith - something which Pope Francis has already placed at the centre of his papacy and demonstrated on his remarkable visit to the Middle East recently.

Whether the papal visit to Scotland has any chance of going ahead next year remains to be seen, but its potential is obvious. From the start, the appointment of a pope from the developing world with a commitment to social change appeared to be a sign that the Catholic Church was finally committed to change. Globally, that change is already happening; in Scotland, more of it is needed. A visit by Pope Francis could be an important reminder of that.

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