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UK’s Archbishop Vincent Nichols welcomes “historic” papal visit

September 3, 2010

nichols 1Pope Benedict will make his first visit to Britain as head of the Roman Catholic Church on September 16-19. This will also be the first official papal visit to the country. Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, talks with Reuters about the trip in the context of the Church’s child-abuse scandal, tensions with the Anglican Church and planned protests.

(Photo: Archbishop Vincent Nichols (L) and the prime minister’s special representative for the papal visit, Chris Patten, July 5, 2010 in London/Peter Macdiarmid)

Here’s our news story on the interview — Archbishop of Westminster says pope not fishing for Anglicans — and below are excerpts from the transcript.

Q: The pope is due to arrive in Scotland shortly. What keeps you awake at night about the visit?

A: Actually I feel at the moment quite relaxed and looking forward to this visit very much, and I think this is true of a lot of people. I think we are well prepared, I think most issues have been settled and agreed, and I get increasingly a sense within our society that this is a significant moment. A visit that is profoundly historical in its nature, and I believe that when the pope comes he will be warmly received and attentively listened to. We do have great character of hospitality towards guests and he is a guest of her Majesty the Queen and I think society will respond accordingly.

Q: There are rumours that the British tabloids are storing up a sex abuse scandal to coincide with the papal visit. How much of a concern is that for you?

A: Well, I think the pattern that has emerged over papal visits to different countries is that in the period immediately prior there is intense criticism of the church in the media. There’s no doubt that issues to do with the Catholic Church are being given more attention at this present time. And the pattern in Australia, in New York, in other places is that the period immediately prior to a papal visit is very cloudy and a few thunderstorms and a bit unpleasant. But what seems to happen is that when the pope arrives, as it were, the sun comes out and the rains are forgotten and people actually concentrate and welcome the pope and are prepared to listen to what he has to say. And I think that is particularly true in a special way with Pope Benedict. Pope John Paul II was a great presence on the stage. Pope Benedict is a much more gentle and refined person, and I think he benefits greatly from the television close-ups because he wants to engage in a dialogue, in conversation. He wants to put forward his views in a measured, eloquent rational way. And I think those qualities will be much appreciated here and people will engage with him.

nichols 2(Photo: Archbishop Nichols at his installation in Westminster Cathedral in London May 21, 2009/Kevin Coombs)

Q: Do you think the visit will enhance the Church’s status in Britain?

A: I think the status of the Church in society is not my prime occupation. I think it will help the Catholic Church to be understood in our society. So for example, a very major part of this visit is to illustrate and strengthen relationships between on the one hand the Holy See, the work of the Catholic Church worldwide and the United Kingdom government. That is why this is a state visit. And there are clear areas in which I think people will be surprised to learn that there is serious cooperation between the government and the Holy See in the provision of primary health care, for example, in the provision of primary education, in the fight against poverty, in the care of the environment. I mean these are major political arenas, policy areas in which the UK government wants to engage more fully with the Catholic Church, and ministers of state are already talking very positively about those things.

So I hope that aspect of what the Catholic Church is and what it stands for will be more clearly understood. So for example, I don’t think many people know that the first ambassador appointed by the UK monarch to the Holy See was appointed in 1476. And in fact, the UK embassy to the Holy See is the oldest overseas embassy in the diplomatic history of this country. Now there was a big gap and then those contacts were only established again in 1914. But this visit helps us to look at our deeper history a bit more clearly. And I hope that will be understood as well.

Q: British ministers and Prime Ministers issued invites to the pope to come – so was it a surprise when its organisation was so badly handled?

A: The discussions that we have had since January/February have not always been easy. And I think the fact that it was clear a general election was coming up and that a government was coming to the end of its time didn’t help. But since the election, since a new government has been in place, and especially since the appointment of Lord Patten, then our work with the government particularly through the Foreign Office and Cabinet Office has been very good indeed. And even though we might say at this point we got started a bit late, the work has been really of a very high standard that is why with two weeks to go I really feel quite relaxed. Things are in place, there is good cooperation with local authorities … and central government and the Church. We are pulling together very well. So while it was difficult to get going, once we have got going it has been very good.

nichols 3Q: We are told the pope is aware of the planned protests and media coverage, will it affect him?

(Photo: Demonstrators outside of Westminster Cathedral in London March 28, 2010/Suzanne Plunkett)

A: I don’t think they will affect him deeply. No. Because I think he is a man who intelligently studies the world, and he knows the ebb and flow of opinion, and he knows the rootedness of the Catholic Church and of the Christian faith. And I think he is also a man of quite remarkable peace. When I was in the Vatican in January for our five-yearly visit of bishops, one thing that struck me and some of my fellow bishops too, is that the people accompanying the pope seem to smile most of the time. And it is almost as if  a certain peacefulness radiates from him. One of my fellow archbishops said here is a man who is at peace with himself, and at peace with his faith, and at peace with his theology. Now that doesn’t mean to say he is complacent, but he’s as it were quietly, deeply rooted and willing to face any challenge or any problem, and to attack it, consider it, intelligently and rationally and with perspectives of faith very clearly worked out in his heart and in his mind.

Q: How big an impact do you think the child-abuse scandal will have on the Church and the pope and Britain?

A: Over the last 15-20 years in this country we have had to face issues of abuse of children by priests and the mishandling of those things and we have had to deal with that. We have had to look at it directly, and not pretend that it is anything other than horrific, try and learn about the effect that abuse has on youngsters and how profoundly it affects them, try and understand how best to respond to the needs of those who have been abused, which is not always easy for the Church because it is precisely their relationship with the Church that is one of those things that has [been] very severely damaged. But I think over those 15 years we have learnt quite a lot, I am not saying we haven’t got much more to learn, but I also think on the stage of the Church as a whole, it is Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope Benedict who has actually led the understanding and the reforms that are needed, and probably still needed, in order to tackle this problem in a way that is both thorough and fair.

And I think one of the most interesting things to me is in this country we have had two independent panels investigating how we react and respond to these things. Now both of them put to us the challenge of being an example of good practice. And slowly what we hope is that what we learn in the Catholic Church can be of service wider in society because incidents of abuse of children occur tragically throughout society. That is not something which in anyway minimises or excuses what has been dreadful in the Catholic Church, but it does mean that we are slowly coming into a position of being able to cooperate with public authorities over the general care of children and the general response to abuse.

nichols 4Q: Why do you think your procedures have not been adopted by other countries.

A: Some countries do similar things and I think we do learn quite a lot from other churches. For over 6 or 7 years now there has been an annual meeting of bishops and those responsible for the protection of youngsters and vulnerable adults across the English-speaking Catholic world. So in the English-speaking scene we have been exchanging experiences quite a lot over the past 6-7 years. I think what is difficult though is that the different cultural and legal frameworks in which the Church operates make a profound difference. So here for example we have full and open cooperation with the police and the social services, in other countries that might not be possible.

(Photo: A priest reads a Church report on child protection, April 17, 2001/Jonathan Evans)

There might not be the same level of trust, with reason, between a body like the Church and public bodies. The legal systems will be different in each country. Here, what we do fits an English legal system. I don’t know enough about legal systems in Africa, or in the Philippines or in big Asian countries. I doubt what we have learnt is immediately applicable there. So there are attempts to exchange experience, I think they could be approved but there are also differences that have to be taken into account.

Q: Are you suggesting that might be why some Churches have not passed files to the police.

A: I do not know about other circumstances. Here we do always share information with the police, and I have only heard that in some situations it might be the police who are involved in the offences as well, and there are patterns of mutual protection that go profoundly into the world of sexual abuse. And it is a fact, and it is a difficult fact to face, that the sexual abuse of children is the most hidden crime of all, and it takes great integrity and sometimes courage to surface these things and to bring them properly into the courts of justice.

Q: Do you think cases around the world will impact on the Church in Britain, despite the work it has done?

A: The Church is a big family… and has to pull together, and we have to try and understand the different circumstances that the branches of this vast family operate in. Certainly we carry each other’s problems. That is part of being a family, and if scandals in other parts of the countries have their impact here we have to learn to bear that and work with it. And I think most Catholics certainly understand that, and they understand the good efforts that are being made. I think in this country most Catholics have great esteem and affection for their priests.

nichols 6Q: Do you think there may be tensions with the Church of England during this trip, especially with the planned symbolic events such as the beatification of the leading Anglican convert Cardinal John Henry Newman, visiting the Queen at Holyrood, the palace of Mary Queen of Scots, and speaking in Westminster Hall where the Catholic martyr Thomas More was condemned to death?

(Image: Cardinal John Henry Newman by Emmeline Deane,1889)

A: I think we have to distinguish between, if you like, the historical and cultural reverberations of some of those moments, which are as you mention are quite symbolic, quite  iconic almost, on the one hand and on the other hand the present relationships between the churches. I think it is very fascinating, and who knows what resonances these images will set, but among them as well as Holyrood, the figure of Thomas More in Westminster Hall, we also need to put in first place the prayer of the archbishop of Canterbury and the pope at the tomb of Edward the Confessor because together they reach back to a common heritage and to the deep roots of who we are and who we are together. So that is an important perspective that needs to be brought to bear on the way we read our history since then.

So we have to be able to read the events of conflict between the churches in the light of those shared profound roots symbolised by Edward the Confessor. The question of our appreciation of history is terribly important and actually a real concern of Pope Benedict because he wants to say ‘without deep roots, plants wither’, and his kind of appeal to us and to Europe in general is not to forget who we are through the length of our history and the depth of our roots. Because when a people forget who they are, forget what their origin, their shape, their deep-rooted culture is, they are kind of left open to all sorts of influences. And I would hope that this visit will help people to be perhaps less apologetic about their Christian past and about their Christian identity, and to be less apologetic about being a Catholic and to actually say ‘well, no’ to live this faith puts me in a deeper long line that has shaped this nation, shaped such goodness right round the globe and is an important resource for  the future.

So that is on the general, historic, cultural setting. Now in particular, to do with our relationship with the Church of England. There is a very important moment when Pope Benedict goes to Lambeth Palace to meet personally with the archbishop of Canterbury. That obviously is reciprocal because the archbishop of Canterbury has been to Rome to talk privately with the pope. But that will be an important moment because there are delicate, difficult issues between our two churches at the moment, which start, we need to remember, by the fact that groups of Anglicans, maybe people on the edge of the Anglican Communion, have persistently asked the pope for a response to their request for special provisions to be made for them to come into full communion with the Catholic Church. The initiative has been with members of the Anglican Communion and the pope’s Ordinariate is a response to those requests.

nichols 7Sometimes people want to say ‘oh, this is the initiative of the pope who is going fishing for Anglicans’. That is not true. He is responding to requests that he has received, and those requests we have to handle sensitively on both sides. I think it is quite remarkable actually that Pope Benedict has a sense of the variety of ways in which it is possible to be a Catholic. I think he is more comfortable with a plurality of expressions of Catholicism in different rites, traditions than many of us are.

(Photo: Pope Benedict XVI with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (R) at the Vatican, May 5, 2008/Osservatore Romano)

In the Ordinariate he is offering a way of being a Catholic which retains some elements of an Anglican patrimony which are consistent with Catholic faith. Now that’s not always easy for the Catholic community to come to terms with and understand as well as for the Anglican community. We have work to do, but we will do it together and that meeting of Pope Benedict and the archbishop of Canterbury will symbolise the way we will tackle these things together.

Q: But with the background of the Ordinariate and the way it was handled, do you expect the meeting to be tense?

A: It’s certainly a very real issue between us but I believe…that such is the strength and now the habitual nature of the relationship between bishops of the Roman Catholic Church and bishops of the Church of England in the UK…that we will deal with these things. It will not break that relationship, it will give us a sensitive issue to deal with. And we have a regular pattern of meetings together. We will not be having harsh words with each other.

Q: Any idea when or how many might convert?

A: No I don’t. I think this is still something that is being explored particularly on the side of the Church of England and certainly on our side. But please, it is important to remember that this Ordinariate, and this response of the Holy See is not just to do with England. In fact the larger, stronger requests came from America and to some extent Australia. So this is something that goes around the world but is also finding a place, we don’t know the extent of that, in this country as well.

nichols 8(Photo: Former Anglican minister and newly ordained Catholic priest David Evans (C) with his daughter Evelyn (L) and wife Patricia in Tenerife, August 23, 2005/Juan Medina)

Q: Will there be any fallout from the pope’s comment on the previous government’s equality legislation.

A: The pope’s comments on equality legislation were about one line long. And I think what he was doing was saying two things. One was an appeal to what we call natural law. Now there is nothing Catholic about natural law. It is simply an attempt to understand human nature and to see what are the patterns that emerge out of the way that we find ourselves to be. So that was a perfectly reasoned voice and a contribution to a debate.

The other thing I think he was saying, and I think this is important to keep in mind, and it would certainly be a view that I would reflect here in Britain at this point, I do not think we have the balance of equality legislation right. That’s not surprising. The unfolding of human rights legislation has been speedy and it has been concentrated in a comparatively short time. I don’t think we’ve got the balance of those rights correct yet. To some extent the pattern has been to develop them from the point of view of minorities which is perfectly understandable and perfectly proper. But majorities have rights too, and I’m not sure that we’ve got that balance correct yet. So for example, that a human rights court would say it is offensive to a minority that a crucifix should stand in a town school seems to minimize the rights and expectations of the majority. So I think equality legislation has a long way to go. I think the pope is perfectly entitled to make a reasoned contribution to that debate.

Q: Is the pope to meet abuse victims during his trip to England and Scotland?

nichols 9 What is perfectly clear is that over the last four or five visits that the pope has made, don’t forget he’s made 16 overseas visits, so we are the 17th, and it is a privilege for us to be receiving him, but over the last four or five, when he has met victims of abuse it has never been announced beforehand, it always takes place in private, and that’s how it should be. So whether that happens now, those same rules would apply. It will not be announced beforehand, and it will take place in private, if that is going to be the case. But precisely because of those rules, it is not clear.

(Photo: U.S. protesters against clerical sexual abuse of children at the Vatican, March 25, 2010/Alessandro Bianchi)

Q: Catholic Voices said the pastoral cost of the visit had gone up from 7 million pounds to 9 million pounds. Is that correct?

A: I would think that is probably a slightly a conservative estimate, it will be in that region, maybe a bit more. But you know, I’m not anxious about that. If you think that there 5 million Catholics in this country, it is about 1.50 pound each. But in fact we are fundraising before the visit has even taken place, has shown that there is a real willingness in the Catholic community to support the pope in this official visit to this country. We are up to 6 million (pounds), we will manage it.

Q: Media reports said there was a lack of interest in the public masses.

A: I was told this morning that they are are pretty well packed now.

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