Catholic officials scale back set pieces for Pope's visit

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The Independent Online

Key set pieces of the Pope's visit to Britain later this summer will have to be scaled back because of security issues, rising costs and concerns over health and safety.

Church officials had hoped to hold at least two major public events in Glasgow and Coventry where hundreds of thousands of people would be able to attend services by Pope Benedict XVI during his official state visit this summer.

When Benedict's predecessor John Paul II toured Britain for a pastoral visit in 1982, millions of Catholics and non-Catholics alike were able to attend open air masses and blessings.

But church officials now admit that plans to hold similarly large gatherings will be stymied by the limitations of modern health and safety legislation, terrorism fears and rising costs.

The centrepiece of Pope Benedict's visit will be a beatification ceremony for Cardinal Newman which officials had hoped would take place at Coventry airport, one of the largest venues available in the diocese of Birmingham. The church's initial aspirations for were to open the event up to an estimated 200,000 devotees. But there are now discussions to scale the event back to a ceremony for just 10,000 pilgrims at St Mary's seminary in Oscott, Birmingham.

Although plans to hold a large open air mass at Glasgow's Belahouston Park are still on, the number of pilgrims that will be allowed to attend is likely to half the 300,000 that packed into the same venue in 1982 to greet John Paul.

Benedict's arrival in Britain, which will take place between 16-19 September, is both a state and pastoral visit where the government and church hierarchies in England, Wales and Scotland have agreed to split the costs of hosting the visit. Whilst the tax payer will foot the bill for official duties such as meeting the Queen and policing costs, the church is expected to pick up the costs of hosting open air masses and the Pope's appearances to the faithful.

Although the Catholic Church has yet to calculate and publish their final estimate for the trip, an initial fundraising target was set at £7m, much of which will be met by donations at mass and from wealthy philanthropists.

But last week church officials, including senior archbishops, were informed that the costs of hosting their side of the event were likely to be closer to £14m leaving the Catholic Church with the choice of either absorbing the extra costs, asking the laity to donate more cash or scaling back their original plans.

Church officials were keen to stress today that a final itinerary of the Pope's visit would only be published in late July once the Vatican Protocol Team - which overseas the pope's travel arrangements - have conducted a second tour of the venues later this month. Expectations for the trip, one official said, had to be tempered with the realities of modern day restrictions on large gatherings.

"Hosting a papal visit in 2010 is very different to 1982," said the official, who has an in-depth knowledge of the negotiations surrounding the trip. "There are limitations caused by health and safety and policing requirements that simply didn't exist thirty years ago."

During Pope John Paul's visit, for instance, security was comparatively relaxed with thousands of people camping out for days to catch a glimpse of the first pontiff to step foot on British soil. Thousands more pilgrims were allowed into venues than would now be sanctioned.

If events are scaled back it will be a source of sincere disappointment for the Vatican which is used to revelling in large open air events where hundreds of thousands of worshippers attend. An estimated half a million pilgrims turned out to see the Pope last month during his visit to Portugal.

Unlike Pope John Paul's masses, which were openly ecumenical, Benedict's public appearances are likely to be overwhelmingly aimed at Catholics. Only pilgrims arriving on buses from their parishes will be allowed to attend events in Coventry and Birmingham meaning there will be little presence of other faiths at a non-official level.