Will Pope’s visit see a big turnout or a big turn-off?
It’s the first state visit by a Pope to Britain in 500 years. But it has failed to seize public imagination. Disclosures of clerical sex abuse have not helped. Alf McCreary reports
When Pope Benedict XVI arrives in the United Kingdom tomorrow he will be the first Pontiff to make a state visit here since the Reformation.
He will be greeted in Edinburgh by the Queen, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and his encounter will therefore have a doctrinal significance. (The Rev Ian Paisley will reportedly be making a protest in Scotland with some of his followers.)
The symbolism of the Pope being greeted by the Queen is important — given the recent attempts by the Vatican to attract dissident Anglican clergy disillusioned by their Church’s acceptance of women bishops.
The Pope will also celebrate an open air Mass in Glasgow and then travel to London where he will take prayers at St Mary’s University College in Twickenham on Friday morning.
He will address leading political and other at figures Westminster Hall and also meet the Archbishop of Canterbury and Anglican and Catholic bishops from England and Wales.
One of the key engagements will be to attend an ecumenical service at Westminster Abbey on Friday with Dr Rowan Williams.
This will be seen as an attempt to build bridges with the Anglicans, and others who are not pleased with the Catholic Church’s claim to be the ‘true faith’.
On Saturday, he will meet Prime Minister David Cameron, celebrate Mass at Westminster Cathedral and attend an open-air prayer vigil at Hyde Park.
The highlight of his visit, though, will be the beatification of Cardinal Newman on Sunday, before returning to Rome from Birmingham.
It will be a busy four days for a man in his 80s and the visit will provide numerous opportunities for media coverage.
Behind the public image, however, there are serious challenges.
This is not a pastoral visit similar to that of the more charismatic Pope John Paul II in 1982, but it will be an attempt to rally the faithful.
However, the pre-tour ticket sales have not been as brisk as the Vatican and their UK colleagues would have wanted and thousands have been given away to fill what would otherwise have been empty seats.
Pope Benedict — a sincere and gentle intellectual — lacks the common touch of his predecessor and, while his public addresses will be keenly received, he is less likely to make ‘good television’ than the popular John Paul II.
The present Pope also starts at a considerable disadvantage, given the clerical child-sex abuse scandals which have rocked the Church. In this context, the latest revelations about the widespread abuse by Belgian Catholic clergy could not have come at a worse time.
Senior figures in the Irish Catholic Church, mired in its own clerical paedophile scandals, will travel across to welcome the Pope, but Cardinal Brady and his colleagues may think wistfully of what might have been.
It is only a short time ago the Irish hierarchy invited the Pope to Ireland, to complete the pastoral visit of John Paul II, a memorable event more than 30 years ago.
He had been unable to visit Armagh for security reasons and a visit by Benedict XVI would have neatly squared that historic circle.
Though the invitation to Benedict was issued in great hope, it is unlikely now that he will ever visit Ireland.
There is a possibility, however, that he will meet some Irish victims of clerical abuse, with others from the United Kingdom, during this visit. Pope Benedict will encounter protests this week, though these may not be as troublesome as the Vatican feared.
However, the Papal entourage would be wise to brace itself for any eventuality.
There is still great bitterness about the extent of child abuse within the Catholic Church and the attempts at a cover-up, as well as the deep suspicion that many senior clergy are still more interested instinctively in preserving the Church than in dealing with the victims.
There is also frustration at the Pope’s conservative attitude to women in the Church and his consistent Catholic teaching, which opposes homosexuality and the use of birth-control.
There is also surprise that the UK taxpayers are expected to pay £12m for the visit, but that, of course, applies to all state visits.
One of the particularly worrying challenges for the Vatican is the relative apathy about this visit.
A poll commissioned by the Scottish Catholic media office found that two-thirds of those polled had no views about the Pope’s visit either way.
No doubt the Pope will be greeted with the respect due to the leader of a world Church — and we may be surprised by the warmth of his welcome and by what he has to say,
However, this visit so far has not caught the public imagination in the way that either the Vatican or the Catholic Church in England and Scotland may have hoped.
Either way, all will become much clearer in the next few days.
Alf McCreary is the Belfast Telegraph’s religion correspondent