Pope beatifies convert in climax of British visit

19th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Pope Benedict XVI beatified a 19th century Catholic convert on Sunday in the finale of an historic visit to Britain.

The pope told 55,000 people gathered in a park in Birmingham, central England, that Cardinal John Henry Newman was a man of "outstanding holiness" whose teachings were as relevant today as they were more than a century ago.

The beatification mass -- elevating the late cardinal towards sainthood -- was the crowning moment of a four-day trip which the Vatican hailed as a "spiritual success".

In his homily, the German-born pope praised Britain's "courageous" fight against the "evil" Nazi regime, as the country celebrates the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, a key aerial conflict in World War II.

The pope has used his visit to warn of "aggressive secularism" in an increasingly multi-cultural Britain, prompting Prime Minister David Cameron to thank him in a farewell address for making people "sit up and think".

On Sunday, thousands of pilgrims rose before dawn to reach the mass in Birmingham where they braved rain and an autumn chill.

The faithful were able to stand close to the imposing white altar in Cofton Park, giving the event a more intimate feel than at the pope's previous mass participation engagements, an open-air mass in Glasgow and a prayer vigil in London's Hyde Park.

There had been fears the pope's visit would be overshadowed by protests against his stance on paedophile priests and contraception, but a pilgrim at the Birmingham mass, Rob Lyng, 47, said it had been a "revelation".

"The visit's taken centre stage. This country has stopped for three days. No other faith could do that," he said.

Benedict's trip has largely been hailed as a success in helping to bring together Catholics and Anglicans, underlined by a highly symbolic meeting and act of worship on Friday with the worldwide Anglican leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

Fresh tensions between the two Churches were sparked last year when Benedict passed measures making it easier for disaffected Anglicans to convert over issues such as the ordination of women.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi described the Pope's trip as "wonderful" and "a spiritual success".

He said Benedict's message "about the positive contribution of the Catholic Church and of Christian faith to society has been received very well."

Cameron said the first papal trip to mainly Anglican Britain since John Paul II in 1982 and the first ever state visit by a pope had made people reflect on faith.

"You have really challenged the whole country to sit up and think, and that can only be a good thing," Cameron said in a speech released before Benedict's departure from Birmingham Airport for Rome.

Newman was one of the Catholic Church's leading thinkers and one of its most renowned converts.

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

An American man from Boston with a debilitating spinal disorder claimed in 2001 he could suddenly walk again after praying to Newman. The pope proclaimed this a miracle last year, clearing the way to beatification.

There is talk of a second miracle, in Mexico, which would secure Newman's final step towards sainthood.

Police in London said meanwhile they had freed without charge six men who were arrested on Friday on suspicion of plotting a "terrorist" attack against the pope.

The first papal visit to predominantly Anglican Britain in nearly three decades has also been marked by Benedict's repeated expressions of remorse over the paedophile priest crisis which has rocked the Church.

On Saturday he met with five victims of sexual abuse by clergy and expressed his "shame" and "deep sorrow" for their suffering.

© 2010 AFP

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