Pope beatifies convert on final day of British trip

19th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Pope Benedict XVI will elevate a famed 19th century Catholic convert to the final stage before sainthood at a huge mass on Sunday as the pontiff wraps up his historic state visit to Britain.

Around 65,000 people are expected at the beatification mass for John Henry Newman in Birmingham, central England, the crowning final moment of a four-day trip which commentators say has helped ease tensions with Anglicans.

British police said meanwhile they had freed without charge six men who were arrested on suspicion of plotting a "terrorist" attack against the pope, whose visit has been surrounded by tight security.

"Six men who were arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000 on Friday, 17 September, were all released without charge late on Saturday night and early this morning (Sunday)," Scotland Yard said in a statement.

Counter-terrorism police had swooped at dawn on Friday to detain five men aged between 26 and 50 who worked as street cleaning contractors in central London, while a sixth man was arrested later the same day.

The first papal trip to mainly Anglican Britain since John Paul II visited in 1982 has also been marked by Benedict's repeated expressions of remorse over the paedophile priest crisis engulfing the Roman Catholic church.

The 83-year-old pope on Saturday in London met with five victims of sexual abuse by clergy, four women and a man, and expressed his "shame" and "deep sorrow" for their suffering.

Thousands of protesters opposed to the pope's stance on clerical abuse, gay rights, contraception and a host of other issues marched through central London on Saturday.

They were far outnumbered, however, by the 85,000 pilgrims who attended a huge open-air prayer vigil led by the pope in London's Hyde Park.

On Sunday, the pope will fly by helicopter to Birmingham from London for the service for Newman, one of the Catholic Church's leading thinkers and one of its most famous converts.

In the 1830s, after trying to "renew" the Anglican Church, Newman became convinced that Catholicism was the only true faith and converted to Catholicism, then rising to become a cardinal.

Fierce debate still rages over his legacy, including denials by Church authorities that he was he was in a homosexual relationship with a fellow priest with whom he lived for 30 years.

He is being beatified because in 2001, an American from Boston who suffered a debilitating spinal disorder claimed he could suddenly walk again after praying to Newman. The pope last year proclaimed this a miracle.

The beatification also comes amid fresh tensions sparked last year when Benedict announced measures making it easier for disaffected Anglicans to convert over issues such as the ordination of women priests.

But British Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to thank the pope at the mass for asking "searching questions" about society that involve even those who are not religious.

"You have really challenged the whole country to sit up and think, and that can only be a good thing," Cameron will say, according to pre-released excerpts of his speech.

The pope's trip has been marked by deeply symbolic gestures of reconciliation towards the Church of England, which was formed in 1534 when England's king Henry VII broke with Rome after it refused to annul his marriage.

Benedict made a highly public show of unity on Friday with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the head of the Church of England, at Westminster Abbey.

He will fly to Rome on Sunday night after the mass in Birmingham.

© 2010 AFP

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