Pope's UK Visit; Reform, Not Dissent

Trip Could Be Benedict XVI's Most Historically Significant

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, JULY 8, 2010 (Zenit.org).- For all the concerns over protests and security, Benedict XVI’s state visit to Britain could well be one of his most successful and historically significant to date.

The apostolic voyage, which the Holy Father is said to be eagerly looking forward to, begins Thursday, Sept. 16, with a reception given by Queen Elizabeth II at Holyroodhouse Palace in Edinburgh, her official Scottish residence.

Later that day, the Pope travels to Glasgow where he will celebrate an open-air Mass in Bellahouston Park, 175 acres of parkland and ornamental gardens three miles from the city center. A large crowd is expected in light of 30% of Glasgow’s population being Catholic and most of Britain’s Catholics living in the north.

After a full day in Scotland, the Pope will then fly to London in the evening. His first engagement the following morning will be to St. Mary’s College in Twickenham, southwest London. St. Mary's is one of Britain’s few Catholic universities, reputed to be the oldest in the country and renowned for its teacher training courses. There the Pope will meet with many youngsters from Catholic schools and, according to Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, will “reflect on the role of the Church in education” and share his vision for learning. He is also scheduled to hold a meeting there with leaders of different faiths.

That evening he has what Archbishop Nichols describes as “three quite remarkable events” lined up in central London. The first is a visit to the Archbishop of Canterbury at the Anglican primate’s official residence, Lambeth Palace. The second is a keynote speech to the United Kingdom’s political and cultural leaders in Westminster Hall. One of the most important buildings in London, adjoining the Houses of Parliament, it has been used since medieval times as a place for banquets and gatherings. But perhaps most famously it is the place where St. Thomas More, the patron saint of politicians who is greatly admired by Benedict XVI, was tried and condemned to death.

The Pope will then pay a visit to nearby Westminster Abbey, the resting place of British monarchs and other important national figures as well as the traditional place of coronation. There he will join leaders of the country’s other Christian confessions for evening prayer. And in what promises to be an historic photo-opportunity, both he and the Archbishop of Canterbury will pray together at the tomb of St. Edward the Confessor, the English monarch and patron saint of the Royal Family, who built the first Westminster Abbey.

The following day, Saturday, Sept. 18, he’ll journey to the Catholic Westminster Cathedral, about half a mile from the Abbey, where he is to celebrate Mass and meet the U.K.’s prime minister, deputy Prime Minster, and the leader of the opposition. A visit to a residential home for the elderly and a prayer vigil in Hyde Park is scheduled in the afternoon and evening. Then on Sunday, Benedict XVI will fly by helicopter to Cofton Park near Birmingham where he will celebrate the beatification of the Venerable Cardinal John Henry Newman, also a figure he greatly admires. The park is just a short distance away from Cardinal Newman’s burial place in Rednal.

According to Vatican sources, the British government is keen that the Pope address policy issues convergent with the Holy See such as tackling poverty and safeguarding the environment. But Benedict XVI is also likely to bring up some important concerns that tend to be sidelined in British public life such as protection of the unborn, the family and other life issues. “He will speak about these in a delicate way,” said one official, “and he will probably also do the same with the bishops.” However, he is not expected to directly address Britain’s recent controversial equality legislation as he voiced his concerns earlier this year, and will generally steer away from directly entering into politics.

Although the visit will be a state one, Vatican officials are viewing it primarily in terms of its pastoral significance, and as “very important” for the country as a whole, not only for the Church. Britain has become one of Europe’s most secular countries -- at least among its media elites -- with a history of anti-Catholic prejudice dating back to the Reformation.

But Vatican officials are not very concerned about planned protests. “They are possible,” said one official, “but the moment he arrives, things change very perceptibly.” He recalled that similar vociferous demonstrations were planned in Turkey, but everything changed when the Holy Father arrived there in 2006.

Another official sees this as a particular gift of Benedict XVI. ”Every place he’s gone to, the media has been hostile in advance and then absolutely disarmed,” he said. “When people see him up close, they see he’s transparent, that he’s a holy man, and what you see is what you get, even though he’s extraordinarily shy.”

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Blessed Newman

The beatification of Cardinal Newman, the 19th-century theologian who is considered by many to have anticipated the Second Vatican Council, could mark a significant step in helping to draw a line under the controversies of the post-conciliar period.

That’s according to the world’s leading Newman scholar, Father Ian Ker. He pointed out that Paul VI was also keen for Newman to be elevated to the altars because Newman “stood for exactly what the reformers stood for -- those reformers who were in continuity rather than ‘disrupture’ with the past and with tradition.”   

Father Ker, professor of theology at the University of Oxford, has long battled with some dissenting Catholics who have tried to claim Newman as their own, using the theologian’s famous remark that he would drink “to conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards” to justify their own dissent.

But he insists that Newman was “simply stating the Catholic position, the same as that of St. Thomas Aquinas: that ultimately we have to obey our consciences even if they are erroneous.” As Catholics, he said, “we are obliged to try to correct our consciences, but if we fail to and can’t, then we just have to go by the best of our lights. That’s basic teaching.”

Father Ker would most like to see Newman made a doctor of the Church. “That will be significant because it will indicate to people that he was orthodox, that he is a teacher of the Church,” he said. “Personally, I think he’s the great doctor of the conciliar period in which we’re living, a towering figure.”

Asked if such a step would finally put an end to the false interpretations of the Council, Father Ker said: “I hope so. He did anticipate the Second Vatican Council but in all his anticipation he was always very careful to keep a moderate balance. He never went over the top.”

Another positive outcome of the beatification, he believes, will be that more ordinary people will begin praying to the great theologian, which could lead to the second miracle required for his canonization. “Very often what happens, apparently,” said Father Ker, “is that canonization follows quite quickly after beatification, presumably because people started then praying in earnest.”

He should know. It was after Deacon Jack Sullivan saw Father Ker on television appealing to viewers to pray to Newman for a first miracle that Sullivan prayed to the 19th-century theologian for his back to be healed.

That miraculous healing has directly led to the beatification that will take place on Sept. 19.

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: epentin@zenit.org