Pope seeks to ease tensions with historic visit to Britain

15th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Pope Benedict XVI begins a historic state visit to Britain Thursday hoping to improve strained links between Catholics and Anglicans but facing protests over his stance on a range of issues.

The pope will visit Edinburgh, Glasgow, London and Birmingham in central England, where the highlight of the four-day trip takes place with the beatification mass of 19th century English cardinal John Henry Newman.

Benedict will have an audience with Queen Elizabeth II after flying in to Edinburgh on Thursday on the first ever state visit to Britain by the head of the Roman Catholic church.

But the 83-year-old pope is likely to find a more muted welcome from Britain's five million Catholics than his predecessor John Paul II, who was greeted by huge crowds when he paid a pastoral visit to Britain 28 years ago.

A mass in Glasgow is set to be 10,000 people under capacity, and while crowds of up to 80,000 are expected for the main events, it is a far cry from the 300,000-plus who flocked to see a mass given by John Paul II in 1982.

More than two-thirds of Britons are opposed to the visit, according to a poll in The Times newspaper Tuesday, either because of the cost or because of the pope's views.

Pilgrims must pay up to 25 pounds (30 euros, 39 dollars) to attend the masses as a contribution towards the 20 million pound cost of the visit, with the government contributing up to 12 million pounds.

Despite concerns over attendance at the masses, the leader of Roman Catholics in England and Wales, Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, insisted there was genuine excitement among the faithful.

"The Catholic tradition in this country is one of actually very profound loyalty to the person of the Holy Father," Nichols told a press conference Tuesday.

"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."

Protesters who accuse the Vatican of failing to take robust action against paedophile priests are determined to show their anger during the visit.

The issue has been thrown back into the spotlight with the publication this week of a plan to deal with priests in Belgium who have sexually abused children.

But the pope's rejection of contraception and women priests and his attitude to homosexuality will feature equally prominently when an expected 2,000 demonstrators unite under the banner "Protest the Pope" on Saturday.

Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged that many Britons disagree with the pope's views, but described the visit as "a unique opportunity" to bring together different faiths.

"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," Cameron said in a video message.

On just the second visit by a pope to Britain since English king Henry VIII broke with the Church of Rome in 1534, the Vatican is concerned to ease strains caused by its offer last year to take in dissident Anglicans angered by their church's move to consecrate female bishops.

The pope will meet Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the head of the Anglican church, on Saturday and they will celebrate evening prayer together in Westminster Abbey.

The open-air mass in Glasgow takes place Thursday, followed by meetings with Catholic schoolchildren and faith groups in London Friday.

The pope will hold talks with Cameron and other political leaders Saturday before a prayer vigil in London's Hyde Park.

Then he moves north to Birmingham to beatify cardinal Newman, a high-profile convert to Catholicism, in an open-air mass, before returning to Rome.

© 2010 AFP

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