Could the pope's visit help heal old wounds?


Despite sparking opposition, Benedict XVI's autumn tour will aim to reassure English and Welsh Catholics of their status, writes MARK HENNESSY

ONE OF ENGLAND'S best-known Catholics, Chris Patten, former government minister and governor of Hong Kong, and the man who drew up the reformation of Northern Ireland policing, has solved many problems. Now he is the personal representative of David Cameron, the UK prime minister, in planning, with Catholic Church leaders, Pope Benedict XVI's September visit to England and Scotland.

It will be the first state visit to the UK by a pontiff (Pope John Paul II's 1982 trip was a pastoral one). The occasion, says Patten, is important for the Catholic Church and for millions of Catholics in England and Scotland but also for the UK as a whole, as it will put "the crowning arch" on the country's relationship with Rome.

Rejecting the description of Catholics as a minority, Patten says a successful visit would heal many old wounds. "I've never felt a second-class citizen because I'm a Catholic," he says, "but if anybody ever has, this would be the end of that."

Whether or not the Catholic Church is a minority religion in the UK, Patten thinks religious belief of any kind is increasingly regarded as an oddity by the majority of the population, even those who are nominally members of a faith. "I do feel that there is a degree of intolerance of religious belief in this country," he said last week, before he spoke in the British foreign office alongside the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols.

"My dominant emotion is that for the pope this must be the most avowedly secular country that he will have been to. Other European countries are far more faith-based. The pope's message that secular society has to be more tolerant is very important."

Pope Benedict will arrive in Scotland on September 16th for a four-day visit that could cost £12 million (about €14.5 million). The British government and the Catholic Church had estimated the cost at £8 million - excluding security, which will cost far more.

When he arrives, Pope Benedict will be received by Queen Elizabeth at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, in Edinburgh, before celebrating Mass at Bellahouston Park, in Glasgow. Travelling south, he will make a speech in Westminster Hall, in London, where Sir Thomas More was sentenced to death in 1535 for denying that King Henry VIII was the supreme head of the church in England - a title still held by British monarchs.

In the more publicly ecumenical spirit of modern times, the pope will later join with the Church of England archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, in Westminster Abbey and pause at the tomb of another English king, but one sanctified by Rome, Edward the Confessor. Later he will travel to Cofton Park, in Birmingham, for the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman before 80,000 people, near where the convert from the Anglican Church is now buried.

Patten has defended the rising costs. "Would we have wanted to go ahead and make the invitation to the pope even if we had known of the parlous state of the nation's finances?" he asked. "I'm sure that wouldn't have been a consideration, because, I think, the importance of this visit makes its own claims on modest public support.

"The fact that this country has to learn to live within its means . . . does not mean that state visits and manifestations of the generosity of the state have to be distant memories. This isn't a return to the Middle Ages, or a return to the days when perhaps we would have had to find a squirrel for the pot."

So far the Catholic Church, which was left with a £6 million debt after Pope John Paul II's 1982 visit, has raised about £5 million - £1.1 million from collections in all English and Scottish churches on Pentecost Sunday and £4 million from private donors. "We've got further to go," says Archbishop Nichols.

Under the original plans Pope Benedict was to have addressed 150,000 people in Coventry; both the government and church deny the move to a smaller venue and an 80,000 congregation in Birmingham was because of cost.

In 1982 nearly 300,000 people gathered in Bellahouston, in Glasgow, for Pope John Paul's open-air Mass; this time the crowds will be perhaps a third of that number, although Patten blames trees rather than any decline in the Catholic Church's popularity. "I think one of the problems is that quite a lot of the trees in the park have grown since then, which is a tendency which trees have, which has altered the sight lines - and, quite properly, welcoming as the citizens of Glasgow are, they don't want to cut down all their trees."

Trees are not the only problem facing the visit. The National Secular Society is loudly opposed, regarding the visit as an outrage when the church is facing so many allegations about its handling of child-abuse cases. Pope Benedict may meet privately with some victims as he did recently in Malta, Archbishop Nichols has indicated, although he stresses he would "obviously have to consider the balance between this being a visit to the United Kingdom - which is not Belgium, which is not Ireland, which is not the United States - and the wide public interest that there is in how the church is responding to these issues".

The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland is also unhappy about the visit. It passed an official protest at its recent synod, describing the papacy as "deceitful and unrighteous". Benedict XVI's presence, it said, "results from an invitation to the Pope as head of state, giving him that recognition and pretended legitimacy which he claims in opposition to the principles of the Reformation".

His Scottish visit would meet with Free Presbyterian ire at any time, but it particularly grates this year, the 450th anniversary of the Reformation in Scotland, where "under the brave and godly leadership of John Knox" the "jurisdiction of the pope was forever abolished".