Pope coming to UK: 'A state visit - but not as we know it'

l-r Matt Tee, Permanent Secretary Government Communications; Cardinal O'Brien, Jim Murphy MP, Archbishop Nichols

l-r Matt Tee, Permanent Secretary Government Communications; Cardinal O'Brien, Jim Murphy MP, Archbishop Nichols

The official dates of Pope Benedict's visit to the UK were finally made  public today. This morning, Buckingham Palace announced that the visit will take place from 16-19 September. Then at noon, the UK Government and the Catholic Bishops' Conferences of Scotland, England and Wales, represented by Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien, and Most Rev Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, held a press conference at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall,  to welcome the visit. They said  the Papal Visit represents an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen ties between the UK and the Holy See on global initiatives, as well as the important role of faith in creating strong communities.

This will be the first ever official Papal Visit to the UK - the visit by Pope John Paul II in 1982 was a pastoral visit only.

Pope Benedict will be received at the Palace of Holyrood House by Her Majesty The Queen. His Holiness will give a major speech to British civil society at Westminster Hall. He will also visit the West Midlands to Cardinal John Henry Newman at a public Mass in Coventry.

Other key elements of the visit will include a public Mass in Glasgow, a prayer vigil in London and an event focusing on education. Relations between the Christian Churches will be a theme of the visit as will the relations between the major faiths. The Pope will visit the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace and pray with other Church leaders at Westminster Abbey.

Rt Hon Jim Murphy MP, Secretary of State for Scotland, is the Government Minister leading the preparations for the visit. He said: "This is an historic visit at an important time. The Pope will receive a very warm welcome from Catholics and people of all faiths.

"As well as providing spiritual leadership to over a billion Catholics around the world, including six million in the UK, the Pope and the Holy See have great influence on global policy in areas such as international development, sustainability and the relationships between religions.

"The Papal visit represents an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen ties between the UK and the Holy See on action to tackle poverty and climate change as well as the important role of faith in creating strong and cohesive communities. We aim to build further on the positive relationship we have developed in recent years."

Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh and President of the Catholics Bishops' Conference of Scotland, said: "I am thrilled that the Pope has accepted the UK Government's gracious invitation and I am sure he will receive a heartfelt welcome from Catholics as well as members of other faiths and people of goodwill.

"A defining feature of Pope Benedict's teaching has been to remind Europe of its Christian roots and culture and to give us guidance on the great moral issues of our day and it is my hope that we all open our hearts to his words."

Archbishop Vincent Nichols said: "As Catholics we are delighted to welcome Pope Benedict. We thank Her Majesty The Queen and her government for extending this historic invitation to His Holiness.

"We are confident that the presence and message of Pope Benedict will encourage everyone to aspire again to a vision of life in our society marked by mutual trust, compassion and truth. The great Christian tradition of faith and life, which has so shaped our culture, has so much more to offer. This gentle yet profound teacher of his faith will encourage and strengthen all who receive his words."

There were questions from journalists as to whether Pope Benedict would be discussing the recent sex abuse scandals in Ireland and parts of Europe. Archbishop Nichols said: "the abuse of children and vulnerable adults is shameful and to be properly condemned". He pointed out that the church in the UK has dealt robustly with such issues and has been enforcing strong child protection policies for the past 12 years. He added that he could not predict what the Pope was going to say.

The visit in September 2010 will be first Papal Visit with the status of a State Visit. As such, the Catholic Bishops' Conferences of Scotland, England and Wales will contribute to the organisation and the costs.

Jim Murphy MP, said: "This will be a State Visit,  but not as we know it."  He explained that while Pope Benedict was being welcomed as a Head of State, he was going to stay in church residences - rather than royal palaces, and would not be travelling in a horse-drawn carriage.

The Papal visit would not be costing the UK government as much as other official events. Mr Murphy pointed out that while one day of hosting the G20 cost the UK government £19m, the four-day Papal visit would be £15m.
The UK and the Holy See restarted diplomatic relations in 1914 and agreed full ambassadorial relations in 1982.

The Holy See has taken a great interest in many of the same foreign policy priorities as the UK. As well as backing the UN Millennium Development Goals for aid to the developing world, Vatican City was also the world's first state to become carbon neutral. In 2006 the Pope bought the world's first International Finance Facility bond on immunisation, a UK initiative to raise over $1bn to immunise people in 70 of the poorest countries of the world against diseases such as yellow fever, polio, measles and tetanus (see: www.iff-immunisation.org/

The Pope has supported the actions of the UK government to encourage reform of the international financial institutions and establishment of an arms trade treaty, while the UK government supports and encourages the Catholic Church's proactive stance on climate change.

Full details of the Pope's itinerary will be announced nearer the time. The Catholic Bishops' Conferences have now set up an official website which will have the latest updates on the Holy Father's trip: www.thepapalvisit.org.uk

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