The papal visit to the UK, its itinerary and importance

The organisation of the papal visit to the United Kingdom, from 16 to 19 September, have published the itinerary of the four day state visit of Pope Benedict XVI. This visit, I expect, will be a very important one, not just for the UK and the Church, but for all of Europe and the world. Although not as heavily secularised as certain other countries, the UK has a history of ambivalence (to put it mildly) towards the Catholic Church. It is not without reason that this is the first official state visit of a pope since the Reformation. Pope John Paul II did visit in 1982, but that was very much a pastoral visit to the faithful, without the bells and whistles (and consequences) of a state visit.

There are a number of highlights to look forward to. On Thursday the 16th there are the welcome and audience in Edinburgh with Queen Elizabeth II, followed by a reception and addresses by both Her Majesty and the Holy Father. The fact that the Queen is head of the Anglican church adds extra weight to this. The ‘other head’ of the Anglican church, Archbishop Rowan Williams, will receive the pope the next day in his residence of Lambeth Palace in London, which will be followed by the pope’s address in Westminster Hall, the very place where St. Thomas More and others were condemned to death. The fact that the pope will now be speaking in that very place is historically quite significant.

Saturday’s high point will undoubtedly be Mass at Westminster Cathedral, and the Sunday will be all about soon-to-be-Blessed John Henry Newman. The pope will beatify him in the morning, and the afternoon will be spent with the bishop of England, Wales and Scotland.

Like his previous visits to Africa, Malta, Cyprus and Portugal, the eyes of the world will be on Pope Benedict XVI. The Holy Father not being one to shun difficult topics, I would not be surprised if the ongoing secularisation, the current abuse crisis and the escalating anti-life attitude in the world are among the topics raised by him and others. No doubt there will be angry, misguided and emotional headlines following some of his words, but hopefully there will be more intelligent and thoughtful comments. If our modern western society has a hope of growth and development, it must show to be able to transcend the childish emotional response to difficult and painful questions. That is why a visit like this, to a western European country is so important for more than just the host country. It is from the west, after all, that the social diseases have too often come, and it is there that a change must be effected. Those changes must not be limited to the relationship between Church and state, but must also include relations with other faiths, relations in the Church herself, and relations with people of all layers of society.