Catholic Church struggles to raise funds for Pope's visit

With just over a month to go before the Pope arrives in Britain, the Catholic Church is facing a £2.6m shortfall in donations needed to pay for the visit.

The Church officially needs to raise £7m to pay for the pastoral elements of Pope Benedict's state visit, although sources involved in organising the trip have told The Independent that the final bill will be closer to £8m.

So far the Catholic Church in England, Wales and Scotland has raised just £5.1m with the vast majority – £4m – coming from wealthy private and corporate donors. Just £1.1m has been given through individual collections at Mass – the equivalent of £1.27 for each regular mass-going Catholic.

The difficulty that the Church has had in soliciting donations from its own faithful reflects a growing fear that Benedict's visit is unlikely to generate the sort of papal hysteria that swept Britain in 1982 when his predecessor, John Paul II, was greeted by more than 2 million Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

"I wouldn't want to say that the reaction has been lukewarm but it certainly hasn't been red hot," says Clifford Longley, columnist for The Tablet. "I noticed in my own parish that they still have tickets available for the Hyde Park vigil and the Newman beatification. We're not in a situation where people are queuing around the block for tickets."

When Benedict's jet touches down at Edinburgh Airport on 16 September, he will encounter a very different country to the one that greeted Pope John Paul. Karol Wojtyla was a charismatic cleric who had won plaudits in the West for the way he had stood up to Soviet Communism. He had survived an assassination attempt and the opening stages of his papacy were dominated by the desire to reach out to people of other faiths.

But Benedict is not John Paul. A deeply intellectual theologian, the current Pope has struggled to win over non-Catholics thanks, in part, to a lacklustre Vatican publicity team that is bad at firefighting, or explaining the nuances of papal vocabulary.

A series of controversial speeches and decisions since his inauguration in 2005 have damaged the Vatican's relations with Jewish and Muslim leaders whilst the ongoing clerical sex abuse scandal has engulfed his Church in one of its worst crises in living memory.

All of which has profound implications for the 83-year-old pontiff's visit. The most obvious example is the Protest the Pope coalition which is planning to hold a series of demonstrations, with some of its leaders even threatening to try to get Benedict arrested for crimes against humanity.

There are also concerns that the cost of tickets to the open-air Masses has put off some Catholics. Benedict's British visit is the first time pilgrims have been asked to pay to attend open-air gatherings. The so-called "pilgrim passes" – which cover some of the costs of transport and include a goodie bag – range from £5 (the cheapest tickets for the Hyde Park vigil) to £25 for the beatification ceremony of Cardinal Newman in Birmingham's Cofton Park.

Earlier this month, the Scottish Herald reported that some parishes have failed to sell more than half their allocation of tickets to the open-air Mass in Glasgow's Bellahouston Park because of concerns over the ticket costs and the long hours that pilgrims would be expected to wait outdoors before the service begins.

But a spokesman in Scotland said it was too early to say how popular the event would be, although initial indications showed a large take-up. "There are more than 500 parishes in Scotland and only 20 per cent have come back to us so far with their figures," the spokesman said. "The vast majority, around 80 per cent, have used up their full quota of pilgrim passes."

The likelihood of there being empty seats at the Masses, however, is very slim, primarily because the events are much smaller gatherings held under stricter security and health and safety conditions than the 1982 Masses. Jack Valero, one of the organisers of Cardinal Newman's beatification, admits the number of people who will get to see Benedict will be far fewer than those who greeted Pope John Paul.

"In all, we hope around 250,000 pilgrims will get to attend one of the three big events: that's around a quarter of the people who attend Mass each week," he said. "We hope a lot more will come out on to the streets to greet him."

But while Pope Benedict may have a hard task winning over the hearts and minds of the British public, many believe he can still pull it off.

"When the Pope visited Australia [in 2008] there was a similar lack of enthusiasm from the press and some quarters of the general public," says Ella Leonard, a member of Catholic Voices, a volunteer group set up to speak on behalf of "ordinary Catholics". "But when he touched down the whole country went crazy. I think Britain will be very similar."

Clifford Longley, meanwhile, believes there is no reason why Benedict can't appeal to the British public as his predecessor did.

"There is an X-factor which is absolutely unpredictable and that is the relationship between Pope Benedict and the British public," he says. "It might go badly wrong but I think there is at least an equal chance, if not a better one, that it will go right."

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in