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80 years after historic meeting with Pope, Irish Regiment returns to the Vatican

Eighty years ago today, the Irish Brigade became the first group of Allied soldiers to meet with Pope Pius XII following the liberation of Rome from the Nazis. Vatican News spoke to Major General Colin Weir.

By Joseph Tulloch

80 years ago today, on the 12th June 1944, a group of soldiers from the British Army’s 38th (Irish) Brigade met with Pope Pius XII.

The soldiers were the first Allied troops the Pontiff had met with since the liberation of Rome from the Nazis eight days earlier.

Ireland was neutral during World War Two, and the 38th Brigade belonged to the British armed forces, but was composed of a mixture of Irish volunteers and Brits of Irish descent.

Today, eighty years to the hour after that historic encounter between Pope Pius XII and the 38th Brigade, a delegation from the unit (which is now known as the Irish Regiment) met with Pope Francis in St Peter’s Square.

Vatican News spoke to Major General Colin Weir, the head of the Regiment – as well as UK Ambassador Chris Trott, who helped arrange his visit – about the Irish Regiment’s encounters with the Popes.

1944: Meeting with Pope Pius XII

General Weir said that the meeting with Pope Pius XII was “one of the legends, really, of our Regimental history.”

The audience, he added, is “one of those unique stories that didn’t involve great valour or heroism or lots of casualties or securing a difficult objective. It was just one of those unique experiences that comes together in times of turmoil.”

Rome had been liberated on the 4th June. By the 12th, the of day the meeting with the Pope – arranged by Irish priests in the Vatican – the unit was already at the new frontline to the north of the city.

Since the Brigade was in an active combat zone, only small group was pulled back from the front lines to meet with the Pontiff.

Major General Weir said that the Brigade’s commander at the time had initially decided that only Catholics would be present at the meeting with the Pontiff, but that after “outcry” from the Brigade’s Protestant members, a mixed delegation was sent.

Musicians from the Irish Regiment play for Pope Francis earlier today

Musicians from the Irish Regiment play for Pope Francis earlier today

80 years since D-Day

General Weir noted that the group he was leading from the Irish Regiment had recently been in Normandy for the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

The visit to Rome, he said, was in recognition of the fact that, while some of the Irish Regiment’s troops had been preparing for D-Day eighty years ago, others had been fighting their way through North Africa, Sicily, and southern Italy, aiming at the liberation of Rome and the entire Italian Peninsula.

He noted that “both of those endeavours – in southern Europe and in north-western Europe – were hugely important; they complemented each other, and our Regiment played a very significant part in both of them. We wanted to recognise that.”

General Weir described the encounter with Pope Francis today as a “huge privilege”, noting that he is due to retire in less than a month, and saying that the meeting ranks “extremely highly” on his list of career experiences.

Pope ‘moved’ by encounter with soldiers

The Major General’s visit to the Vatican was facilitated by the UK Ambassador to the Holy See, Chris Trott.

Ambassador Trott told Vatican News that the initial plan had been for the delegation from the Irish Regiment to pose for a photo with the Pope.

When they arrived, however, he said, the Pope asked the Regiment’s musicians to play for him.

“I was very moved”, the Ambassador said, “because that was unexpected; it was the Pope’s own initiative.”

“I think it was in response to the fact that the General had given the Pope a banner with, on one side, the Regiment’s badge, and on the other side the Pope’s crest, and I think he appreciated that very much. So it’s been a very good morning.”

Musicians from the Irish Regiment play for Pope Francis in St Peter's Square earlier today

Musicians from the Irish Regiment play for Pope Francis in St Peter’s Square earlier today

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