With historic visit, pope to challenge indifferent, agnostic Brits

Pope Benedict XVI later this month visits Great Britain in a swirl of paradoxes.

Relations with its government are far closer than ever before — he comes at the invitation of the queen for the first-ever state visit by a pope — yet tensions over recent equality laws have put in serious doubt the willingness of the British state to protect the Church’s presence in the public square. The voices of militant Protestantism are largely silent, but protests by radical secularists and gay rights campaigners will be far stronger than during the first and last papal visit in 1982.

State event? Or pastoral?

The state nature of the visit has involved Church-state negotiations of sometimes Byzantine complexity over costs and logistics. Technically, the government meets the expenses of the “state” elements of the visit, while the Church foots the bills of the “pastoral” parts — a prayer vigil in Hyde Park, Mass at Westminster Cathedral and, what is for Catholics the highlight of the visit, the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman at Cofton Park outside Birmingham. Negotiations with the government have been fraught with tortuous discussions over exactly when the visit passes from “state” to “pastoral.” Both sides have struggled to keep down spiralling costs — the Church has raised $9.25 million for its share, but is $6.2  million in the red — at a time when the new administration has introduced painful budget cuts across government.

Nervousness about costs and stringent security and safety rules that did not exist in 1982 have to some extent dampened the enthusiasm of Catholics, who can only attend the large events in Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park, Hyde Park and Cofton Park by applying for the limited tickets allocated to each diocese through their parish.

The British police, for whom the notion of vast, peaceful crowds is largely alien, are demanding that pilgrims arrive on buses where each person can be identified and accounted for. The allocation of tickets has sometimes been out of sync with demand, leaving many Catholics frustrated at being unable to attend, while some dioceses have struggled to meet their quotas. But these problems are being tackled, and the events will no doubt be full: 100,000 are expected at Bellahouston Park, 90,000 in Hyde Park and around 80,000 in Cofton Park for the beatification Mass, while it is impossible to predict the numbers who will flock to Westminster to see the popemobile.

For those familiar with the often bloody history of relations between crown and papacy, Church and state, there will be many powerful, poignant moments. Pope Benedict flies first to Edinburgh to be received by the queen in Scotland.

‘Healing of memories’

Queen and pope will sit to talk in Holyroodhouse, her official Edinburgh residence, and the home of Mary, the Catholic Queen of Scots, before her execution in 1587 by the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. On Sept. 17, the pope will address 1,000 parliamentarians and civic leaders in Parliament’s Westminster Hall, where Catholic martyr saints Thomas More and Edmund Campion were tried and sentenced to death. That evening, he will pray with the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in the queen’s church, Westminster Abbey, before the tomb of the 11th-century king St. Edward the Confessor, revered by both Catholics and Anglicans. Such moments will provide, say the visit’s Catholic organizers optimistically, an opportunity for the “healing of memories.”

For the pope, they offer a platform for recalling Britain to its “authentic” liberal heritage, one founded on pluralism and openness to God — a Christian humanism, inclusive of the marginalized and the poor, in contrast to the chilly materialist emptiness of secular beliefs.

Even if most British people have never heard of him, the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890) will provide a focal point for both Anglicans and Catholics. Newman’s life, marked by an astonishing courage to follow the truth where it led him, and described in classics of Christian literature, offers Pope Benedict a magnificent opportunity to pay homage to an authentic conscience in contrast with the subjectivist, individualist notions that underpin relativism. What Pope Benedict says in praise of Newman — one of the great English intellects of the 19th century — will need to be carefully chosen; centuries of Anglican suspicion of Roman triumphalism are not so easily erased.

Attention-grabbers

A campaign against the state visit has been mounted by a loose coalition of humanists, secularists, atheists and gay rights activists under the banner of a “Protest the Pope” campaign.

There will be placards and attention-grabbing attempts by its leader, the human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who once released helium-filled condoms in Westminster Cathedral, to draw attention to what he portrays as the Church’s scandalously illiberal views on homosexuality and women. There will be no shortage of documentaries and films on sex abuse and celibacy timed for the eve of the visit.

But the Church, too, has been preparing. Catholic Voices, a team of 20 articulate young Catholics, have been receiving media-skills training and briefing on “hot-button issues” over the past six months, and are being heavily booked by broadcasters. [Full disclosure: I am one of the coordinators.]

But the pope will find the Church in reasonable health: Catholics, boosted by large-scale immigration, now number close to 6 million, around 10 percent of the population, considerably up from the 4.2 million reported in the census of 2001. And, after a long period of falling numbers, priestly vocations are rising again, with 150 men currently in seminaries and 40 more to join them in October. Clerical sex abuse stories have largely died down following draconian and effective guidelines introduced in 2001.

In terms of its contribution to British society — 2,300 schools, a large network of charities and aid agencies — the Church is one of the major actors in civil society. Pope Benedict will be inviting the agnostic or indifferent majority of British society to focus on that contribution, to reconsider the gift of faith that lies behind it, and to see the connection between that faith and what makes Britain great.

Austen Ivereigh writes from England.

THE KEY EVENTS (sidebar)

Sept. 16: State welcome and audience with Queen Elizabeth II in Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, Scotland. Open-air Mass in Glasgow.

Sept. 17: Visit to the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, at Lambeth Palace; address to MPs and civil society leaders in Parliament; ecumenical vespers at Westminster Abbey.

Sept. 18: Meetings with the prime minister, deputy prime minister and leader of the opposition; Mass at Westminster Cathedral; visit to a residence for the elderly in south London; prayer vigil in Hyde Park, London.

Sept. 19: Mass for the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman at Cofton Park, outside Birmingham; meeting with the bishops of Scotland and of England and Wales; departs for Rome.