Pope’s visit to UK runs into murmurings

June 16, 2010

Are preparations for Pope Benedict’s visit to England and Scotland on track? Well, sort of.

The papal visit in September will be the first since Pope John Paul II’s pastoral visit in 1982 and the first ever papal state visit to these shores.

But there have been murmurings in the national press that things may not be going quite according to plan – and we’re not just talking government slip-ups.

nicholsIt is true that most of the nods and winks have come from the Daily Telegraph – or in the case of its blogger Damian Thompson, the bulk of the shouting.

But a public relations exercise this week by the leader of the Roman Catholics in England and Wales, the Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, left this reporter slightly uneasy.

(Photo: Archbishop Vincent Nichols, 21 May 2009/Kevin Coombs)

It was arranged to discuss the Archbishop’s booklet “Heart Speaks unto Heart”, aimed at educating officials and Britain’s 5 million Catholic worshippers about the significance of the Pope’s four-day visit between Sept. 16 and 19.

But his handling of questions on whether the project was in danger of overspend, with a possible change of venues, was rather coy.

The Catholic newspaper The Tablet last week suggested that Longbridge, the disused MG Rover plant in Birmingham, could be used for performing the beatification, a step on the path to sainthood, of 19th century theologian and educationalist Cardinal John Henry Newman – rather than the initially planned Coventry Airport.

Longbridge would be less expensive in providing security, it argued.

The Archbishop’s response was: “The plans that we have on the table  involve Coventry Airport. These will be looked at and clarity will be there by the end of next week.”

He was also asked if the Church’s 7 million pound contribution to the overall 15 million pound cost of the visit would over-run?

“We are intending and hoping to fulfill our side of those obligations within the budget we have already established, ” he said.

“But there are still things to be made clear but that process is now moving very well and very quickly.”

When the issue of a public prayer vigil at Hyde Park in London came up, Nichols said he was “puzzled” by a comment in the Telegraph claiming it had not been booked.

Permission had been given, he said.

To be fair, the Archbishop cannot speak with authority until after a protocol team from the Vatican visits next week for a progress report on logistics, and the publication of a detailed itinerary in July.

But the visit, already struggling to overcome the damage done by the church’s worldwide child abuse scandal and tensions caused by the Pope’s offer to disaffected Anglicans to convert, has also been plagued by government mishaps and a change of government.

The Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy, who had been the government coordinator, was removed after the Labour party lost the May 6 election.

pattenHis replacement, the former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten, was only appointed last week, but the Archbishop pointedly praised  Patten as somebody with whom the Church could have “decisive” discussion.

(Photo: Chris Patten, 25 July 2006/Nir Elias)

Other recent changes have seen the Cabinet Office take over responsibility for the trip, replacing the Foreign Office after it was forced to apologise in April for a leaked memo mocking the Pope’s visit.

Nichols couldn’t resist a faintly veiled jibe at the FO’s expense about posting the booklet to Whitehall.

The Archbishop went on to say that the Pope’s visit could fortify Britons’ faith and provide them with the inner strength needed at a time of government cutbacks and financial constraint.

“I think the visit of the Pope in response to the invitation of the Queen is a really very significant moment for this country,” he said.

“People that I speak to recognise that as a society we are entering into a period, maybe a prolonged period, which is going to be difficult.

“And in times of difficulty we need all the inner resources that we can muster and the resources of religious faith is a crucially important one for giving society stability and generosity, especially in times of financial constraint.”

It was a strong message to deliver at a time when the Church is under the microscope.

Large crowds are expected, but among the throngs will be protesters threatening to arrest the Pope for his handling of the sexual abuse of children by priests, demonstrators complaining at the Church’s attitude to homosexuality and secularists angry at the 8 million pound cost of the trip to the taxpayer.

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