Tens of thousands of tickets for papal visit to UK unsold


TENS OF thousands of tickets for Pope Benedict’s visit to England and Scotland next week remain untaken, following major problems with the distribution, partly caused by security concerns, and a lack of demand from millions of Catholics.

Individual applications for tickets had to be made before August 2nd – a date insisted upon by the security services and not the Catholic Church, but this caused difficulties because it clashed with the peak holiday season.

Now parish priests are trying to distribute thousands of tickets to schools in a bid to use up their allocations for the pope’s Mass in Glasgow, the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Birmingham and a Mass in Hyde Park in London.

In a letter sent to principals of Catholic schools in London last week, the Archbishop of Westminster, Rev Vincent Nichols, issued an “urgent” call on them to organise parties of schoolchildren to attend the Hyde Park event.

Fr Stephen Langridge of the Holy Ghost Church in Balham in south London said he had 4,000 tickets to distribute to schools in his parish, though he rejected suggestions that Catholics did not want to see the pope.

The early deadline for tickets was set by the security services, who are concerned about the dangers of protests at the pope’s events in light of vocal criticism about his handling of the child sex abuse crisis in the church.

Each ticket has to be individually allocated, so last-minute decisions to travel to see the pope will not be possible, though a second round of tickets are being distributed through parishes, the Knights of Colombanus and other Catholic bodies.

Just 80,000 people are expected to travel to Bellahouston in Glasgow for an open-air Mass, a far cry from the 300,000 who gathered at the same venue for Benedict’s predecessor Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1982.

Scottish bishops had hoped that 100,000 would come, but 25,000 tickets – which require a £20 donation each, compared with a £5 cost for the Hyde Park Mass later in the visit – remain undistributed.

Meanwhile, there are fears of traffic problems at Bellahouston because people are now being asked to take public transport buses to the venue, rather than hired coaches that would have been pre-cleared for entry to the grounds.

Pope Benedict, who is making the first State visit by a pope to the UK, will be greeted on arrival in Scotland on Wednesday at Holyrood House by Queen Elizabeth II, while the prime minister will host a state banquet in his honour later in London.

“People seem to be looking for a negative interpretation of everything to do with this visit,” said Fr Langridge, “but I am certain that there will be a rallying by Catholics in their Catholicism and that they want to show their support for the pope.”

So far, the Catholic Church has raised £5 million of the £9 million bill that it will have to meet for the costs of the visit, though the security bill facing the British authorities will be far larger.

Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1982 was a pastoral visit and, therefore, all of the costs associated with it were met by the church.

It took place shortly after the Falklands invasion and took place only after it was decided that the pope would not meet then prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Briefing journalists on the trip in Rome yesterday, the Vatican’s senior spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, suggested that, by the standards of some of the pope’s foreign visits, next week’s trip to England and Scotland presented no reason for undue concern.

Asked about the polemics generated by the cost of the pope’s visit Fr Lombardi suggested that this was not an issue on which the Holy See could comment.

Asked if the pope would be meeting with victims of clerical sex abuse during his UK trip, Fr Lombardi was unable to confirm any such meeting.

Vatican observers, however, believe that such a meeting will almost certainly take place. Fr Lombardi said that, as on previous occasions when Benedict has met with sex abuse victims, there would be no preliminary publicity about any such encounter.

This is to ensure that the meeting retains a discreet “spiritual” dimension and does not become transformed into an international “photo opportunity”.

Fr Lombardi stressed that, fundamentally, the pope was travelling to England so that he could personally preside over next Sunday’s beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman.