Britain Awaits Benedict

Pope Benedict’s upcoming state visit to the United Kingdom will be historic in many ways.

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Great Britain in September will be a valuable evangelizing opportunity that is attracting great interest among the country’s Catholics and the wider public.

That’s according to the coordinator of the visit for the bishops of England and Wales.

Msgr. Andrew Summersgill told the Register July 29 that despite — or perhaps because of — the wide media publicity, which has often been negative, there is a “real interest” in the visit. But more than that, he underlined the significance of it being the first state visit to the country by a pope.

A state visit, the highest form of contact between nations, is a formal visit by a foreign head of state to another nation, at the invitation of that nation’s head of state. State visits are marked by ceremonial pomp and diplomatic protocol. Pope John Paul II’s historic six-day trip to Great Britain in 1982 was an unofficial pastoral visit and came at the request of Church hierarchy in the U.K.

“The whole thing about it being a state visit has really caught people’s interest, particularly Catholics, who really do see it as something of an affirmation,” Msgr. Summersgill said. He noted that some of the secular media reporting on the visit has been “quite trivial” and some “sensationalizing” has been going on. But he said “that is beginning to change, and people are beginning to reflect on the hopes and expectations for the visit.”

“It’s said that any publicity is good publicity, and it is raising awareness and expectation, which is good,” he said. “On the other hand, you’d hope people could think a little more seriously about why the Pope is coming and what he may or not may say.”

Pope’s Itinerary

Benedict XVI’s short but intense Sept. 16-19 apostolic voyage to Britain begins in Scotland, where he will be met by Queen Elizabeth II. He will then travel to nearby Glasgow where, in the evening, he will celebrate an open-air Mass.

For the rest of the visit, he will stay mostly in London, at the apostolic nuncio’s residence in Wimbledon. Events in the capital will begin Sept. 17 with a visit to St. Mary’s University College in southwest London, where he will pray with representatives of religious congregations involved in education, meet 3,000 young people, and give a speech to religious leaders.

Later in the day, the Pope will meet with the archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace, after which he will travel to the Houses of Parliament, where he will address British political and cultural leaders in Westminster Hall, the place of St. Thomas More’s trial and condemnation. The day will end with a visit to Westminster Abbey, the place of coronations, where he will pray at the grave of the Unknown Warrior and the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor.

The following day, the Holy Father will celebrate Mass in Westminster Cathedral, visit a home for the elderly and then lead an open-air vigil in London’s Hyde Park.

The final day of the visit will be focused on the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, due to take place in a park close to Cardinal Newman’s burial place. After meeting the bishops of England, Scotland and Wales, Benedict will give a farewell address at Birmingham Airport in the evening and arrive back in Rome around 10pm.

Papal Visit Planning

Organization of the visit is back on track after a few early obstacles, mainly due to the complexities of combining a state and pastoral visit. Preparations have been helped by the enlistment in June of Lord Christopher Patten of Barnes as the overall coordinator of the visit. A seasoned diplomat who was the last governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten has been clarifying responsibilities among state and Church officials. He held talks at the Vatican July 26 with Archbishop Fernando Filoni and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti of the Secretariat of State to finalize arrangements.

While in Rome, Patten told Vatican Radio he was “absolutely certain” the visit would be “an incredible success.” He noted the strident criticisms of the visit in some quarters, most notably about costs to the taxpayer. Although estimates put the total at $19 million, he argued that last year’s one-day G20 Summit in London cost $31 million and didn’t involve attendance of up to 100,000 people.

Msgr. Summersgill made assurances that, contrary to reports, the faithful would not have to pay for tickets to see the Pope, but would make contributions towards “pilgrim packs” that can either be paid for individually, through parish funds, or by means of fundraising. He said it’s no different from paying to register to attend World Youth Day. “We’re just not calling [it] a registration fee,” he said.

Organizers are also playing down worries about protests that have been whipped up by secularists and some Muslim extremists. “They are not at all a concern,” said one government official. “They’ll be there, but they were there before and they’ll be there again.”

Lord Patten, who is a Catholic, said Britain is a “free society,” and people have “every right” to make their concerns known. But he said he found it “curious” that there’s “as much protest as when the head of a totalitarian country comes to the U.K.”

He noted that an “intellectually developed” atheism had taken root in “a large part” of the public and media agenda, but said he wasn’t concerned about hostility directed against the Church. “We need to stand our ground,” he said. “Some secularists are intolerant of the Church, as some Church groups were in the past. … It’s one of the ironies of life.”

But he acknowledged a widespread unbelieving attitude in the country. “In comparison to the United States, we would not be able to point to so many people for whom God was a really important part of their lives,” he said. To illustrate predominant British attitudes, he quoted a line from the English author Julian Barnes: “I don’t believe in God, but I do miss him.”

Security will be tight for the visit, but not overwhelming. Msgr. Summersgill said the U.K. has “specific practices” for accommodating and managing large numbers of people. He said the Pope wouldn’t be kept too much at a distance but would be safe. “I would expect security arrangements to be extremely discreet but secure,” he said.

He said he is confident the visit will be a great opportunity for evangelization, when people see Pope Benedict in the flesh, hear his words, and see his attitude with people. “He’s a remarkably courteous and gentle person,” he said, “and to see him welcomed in that way and have the opportunity to listen to him could be a real moment of affirmation for the Church.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.

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