PM offers Pope a 'very warm welcome'

Prime Minister David Cameron offered "a very warm welcome" to Pope Benedict XVI today ahead of his visit to Britain.

The first state visit by a Pope to Britain, starting on Thursday, will take in trips to Edinburgh, Glasgow, London and Birmingham, and includes a meeting with Mr Cameron on Saturday.

The meeting comes a day after the funeral of Mr Cameron's father Ian, who died last week, and the leader of Catholics in England and Wales, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, said the Pope would be praying for the Prime Minister and his family in their time of grief.

The Most Rev Nichols said the death of Mr Cameron's father would be "uppermost" in the mind of the Pope when he meets the Prime Minister.

"He will be praying for the senior Mr Cameron who has died and, of course, for the Prime Minister and his family at their time of grief," Archbishop Nichols told a news conference.

"That is what a priest does, and that will be first, I am sure, on the agenda of the Pope when he meets the Prime Minister."

In a video message on the 10 Downing Street website, Mr Cameron described the papal visit as "a great honour for our country".

Amid continuing controversy over child abuse cases within the Roman Catholic Church, the PM acknowledged that many Britons may disagree with the Pope on particular issues, but he insisted that all should recognise that Benedict's message raises important issues about society.

Mr Cameron said: "I would like to offer Pope Benedict a very warm welcome to Britain for this incredibly important and historic visit.

"This is the first ever official papal visit to these shores. And it's a great honour for our country.

"These will be a very special four days not just for our six million Catholics but for many people of faith right across Britain, and millions more watching around the world.

"It is a unique opportunity to celebrate the enormous contribution that all our faith communities make to our society and to celebrate their role in helping to build a bigger and stronger society.

"That society should be about more than materialism. It should be about shared values and about working for the common good.

"Whether it is coming together through the tough economic times or helping the victims of disasters like the floods in Pakistan, the fellowship and solidarity that unite us are not just Christian values but British values - values we cherish right across our society, amongst people of every faith and none."

Mr Cameron added: "Of course, not everyone will agree with everything the Pope says, but that shouldn't prevent us from acknowledging that the Pope's broader message can help challenge us to ask searching questions about our society and how we treat ourselves and each other.

"The Holy See can also be a partner for us with great influence across the world and we have incredibly important work to do together on fighting poverty and disease, on winning the argument on the need to get to grips with climate change and on promoting a multi-faith dialogue and working for peace across our world.

"So as we welcome the papal delegation, let us redouble our resolve to work for the common good, both here in Britain and with our partners abroad."

The welcome came after Archbishop Nichols insisted that he was confident that Catholics would show "profound loyalty" towards Pope Benedict XVI on his visit to Britain.

"The Catholic tradition in this country is one of actually very profound loyalty to the person of the Holy Father," he said.

"While many would want to suggest differences of trends and opinion, this way or not, I am quite sure, and it is my experience in parish after parish, standing at the back of Westminster Cathedral day after day, that Catholics are looking forward to this visit very much indeed.

"The Catholic people of this country know what it is to show their affection and support for Pope Benedict."

Archbishop Nichols said 1,000 coaches with pilgrims would attend the beatification ceremony for Cardinal John Henry Newman to be carried out by the Pope in Cofton Park, Birmingham, on Sunday.

The event will bring the 19th century clergyman one step closer to becoming England's first non-martyred saint since before the Reformation.

He said the Church expected around 54,000 to 55,000 people to be present at the site for the Mass, billed as the highlight of the Pope's four-day trip to Scotland and England.

The Catholic Church said earlier this year that around 65,000 people classed as "pilgrims" - who have been asked to pay £25 towards travel costs and security - were expected at the ceremony.

There is also likely to be a lower than expected turnout of Catholics for a giant open-air Mass with the Pope in Bellahouston Park in Glasgow on Thursday.

The Hyde Park prayer vigil to be held in London on Saturday is said to be near capacity, with 80,000 pilgrims expected.

Lord Patten, the Prime Minister's representative for Pope Benedict's visit to Britain, also speaking at the news conference, said the "eyes of the world" would be on Britain during the visit.

"I think it will be a schedule-stopper right around the world as far as news editors are concerned," he said.

The Pope's four-day visit will begin on Thursday in Edinburgh with a state welcome by the Queen and a reception at Holyroodhouse Palace.

He will celebrate an outdoor Mass in Bellahouston Park in Glasgow where Britain's Got Talent star Susan Boyle will perform.

The Pope will visit London on Friday and Saturday, when he will meet schoolchildren and representatives from different faiths and give an address at Westminster Hall.

He will also meet the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, join evening prayers in Westminster Abbey, visit an old people's residence and host the Hyde Park prayer vigil.

He will travel by Popemobile in Edinburgh, London and Birmingham.

His visit will be met by protests from groups including secular campaigners and child abuse survivors.

Peter Tatchell, of the Protest the Pope campaign, said: "We are calling on the British Government to disassociate itself from the Pope's opposition to women's rights, contraception, gay equality, fertility treatment, embryonic stem cell research and the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV.

"On these and many other issues, Benedict is out of step with the majority of British people, including many Catholics.

"It is hypocritical for the Pope to attack Britain's equality laws, as he did earlier this year, while happily accepting hospitality and funding from the British people and Government."