Coventry, Glasgow and London will all play host to the Pope and his bullet-proof “pope mobile” this autumn as the details of his much anticipated state visit were finally confirmed by Buckingham Palace earlier today.
Benedict XVI, who is currently struggling to contain a string of fresh clerical abuse allegations in Europe and Central America, will fly into Edinburgh on 16 September to be received by the Queen at Holyroodhouse before journeying to Glasgow to hold a major open-air mass in Bellahouston Park.
The following day he will travel to Coventry to preside over the beatification of Cardinal Newman, before moving onto the capital to deliver a landmark speech.
It is only the second visit to Britain by a Pope and represents the first time that the leader of the Catholic Church has made an official papal visit to the UK. John Paul II’s visit in 1982 was a strictly pastoral affair which won the Polish-born pontiff reams of admirers in a corner of the world that has long been regarded by Vatican traditionalists as a bastion of anti-papists.
Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy, the Catholic MP who is leading the preparations for the visit, said non-policing costs for the four day trip would run to £15m. Tax payers usually pick up the bill for state visits but the Catholic Church said today that it would help pay for the pastoral elements such as any open air masses and the beatification of Cardinal Newman.
Policing costs will have to be met from existing budgets, however, with no extra funds available for those forces that will have to provide security throughout the four day visit.
The Most Rev Vincent Nichols, archbishop of Westminster and the leader of Catholics in England and Wales, described the upcoming visit as an “historic” occasion that would bring one of the world’s most influential leaders to Britain.
“It takes us into new territory,” he said. “This is a visit of a leader of probably the oldest institution in the world with a diplomatic reach that is as rich as anybody’s, if not more. One only has to look at the 200 state leaders who attended the funeral of Pope John Paul II to have a glimpse of diplomatic reach of the Holy See.”
Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, said the Pope would look to “remind Europe of it Christian roots and culture” as well as give “guidance on the great moral issues of our day.”
"It is my hope that all who are prepared to listen to him will open their hearts to his words,” he said.
When John Paul touched down at Gatwick airport in 1982, kissing the ground as he stepped off the plane, he instantly won over devotees and non-believers alike who turned out to attend his open air masses in their tens of thousands.
Like Benedict, John Paul had only been pope for little under half a decade when he made his trip to Britain, but he had already won widespread praise outside the Catholic Church for his ecumenical approach to other faiths and his approachable personality.
Benedict’s visit will take place in a very different atmosphere. Since becoming Pope in 2005, Joseph Ratzinger has guided the Catholic Church along a more traditionalist and conservative path. He has also upset both Jews and Muslims with a series of public gaffes.
The Vatican is also currently battling a whole new raft of historical and current abuse scandals, the most recent of which have emanated out of Germany, Holland and Mexico in recent weeks.
One of Ireland’s top Catholics, Cardinal Sean Brady, is also under intense pressure to resign after it emerged this week that he had attended two meetings where child abuse victims had signed vows of silence over complaints against a serial clerical sex abuser.
At a press conference announcing the state visit this afternoon, Cardinal O’Brian was somewhat taken aback by an Irish reporter asking if the Pope’s “moral guidance” would include publicly talking about child abuse during his visit.
“Well obviously I don’t know what the Pope is going to say and I don’t suppose he knows what he’s going to say as yet,” he said. ”We are quite a different country from Ireland, France or wherever else and I basically don’t know whether or not he will be addressing that particular subject.”
Archbishop Nichols, who won praise in the late 1990s for taking a hard stance against clerical abusers, added: “In this country and in Scotland we have dealt with issues of clerical sexual abuse for the last twelve years and I believe we have robust procedures in place. The abuse of any one child by anybody is a tragedy and it is unacceptable. But I believe people in this country will recognise in the Pope an eloquent, a gentle and profound teacher of all that is right and just.”