JOHN PAUL II RETURNS .. 25 YEARS ON: SECOND COMING; Bishops Ask Pope Back to Ireland for Armagh Visit .. the Trip He Couldn't Make on 1979 Tour

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Byline: PAT FLANAGAN

THE Pope has been invited to visit Ireland and complete a tour he wasn't allowed to finish 25 years ago.

The frail pontiff, who suffers from Parkinson's Disease, will make a return trip before Christmas if his health holds out, Vatican sources said last night.

John Paul II pledged, "I will return," at the end of his triumphant tour in 1979 and was saddened by security fears that stopped him crossing the border.

He now wants to keep his word and go to Armagh - an impossible mission during his last visit at the height of the North's Troubles.

The Pope is keen to follow in the footsteps of St Patrick and call to the spiritual home of the Catholic Church here.

If the invitation is accepted the pontiff will take part in a special mass in Armagh Cathedral and if he is fit enough, he could also visit other cities, including Dublin.

A source said: "His Holiness would love to return and if his health holds he will. Armagh is the religious centre of Ireland for both Catholics and Protestants and that is symbolic.

"He said at Drogheda that he would return and he would dearly like to live up to his word." The Irish bishops unanimously decided last week to invite the pontiff back to mark the 25th anniversary of his original trip.

However, the Pope's decision to make the journey will be determined by the state of his health.

It will also depend on whether the British Government allows him to visit the North, although this is unlikely to be a major issue with the peace process.

Pope John Paul openly said he wanted to celebrate mass in the historic diocese of Armagh on his last visit.

Yesterday, the Bishop of Meath Michael Smith said the 84-year-old pontiff had a strong desire to visit the Diocese of Armagh.

Bishop Smith added that it was not possible to set a date for the visit, but he said it could be arranged within a matter of weeks if the Pope's advisors gave the go-ahead.

He explained: "The decision will be made by the people advising the Pope in Rome. Before the last visit we met with the Pope at the end of August and the visit took place at the end of September.

"It hadn't been announced or indeed, much preparation done for him to go to Armagh or Drogheda. So the time scale doesn't have to be long. That was in 1979 and I'm sure it can be made even more rapidly now.

"If he came back, it would be in that context. I don't think there is any great secret that he would like to complete his visit."

Bishop Smith is part of a sub-committee set up by the Catholic hierarchy to consider a papal visit, which includes the Bishop of Cloyne, John Magee and Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnois, Colm O'Reilly. …