Pope Benedict XVI has promised a visit to Ireland in the next two years, most likely during the Eucharistic Congress, after apologizing for not visiting the country during his recent tour of the UK.

The 49th International Eucharistic Congress – a gathering of Catholics from all over the world – will be held in Dublin in 2012.

A senior Vatican official said that, “There is a strong likelihood that Pope Benedict will visit Ireland in 2012 as part of the Eucharistic Congress.”

"This year has been a troubled time for the Church in Ireland and His Holiness has expressed his closeness to the people and to the clergy - what better way to show his closeness than by a visit to the faithful," he said.

In September, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, said that he thought a papal visit would take place in 2012. "I also have some grounds for believing that could happen as soon as 2012," he said at the time.

The last papal visit was by Pope John Paul II in 1979, when, famously, millions of Catholics came out to see the Pope. With the child sex scandals and the general decline of the church’s power, it is unlikely that such scenes will be repeated. Indeed, when Pope Benedict visited the UK, just a few thousand people travelled to see him.