Papal State Visit Comes As Storms Engulf the Vatican

By Ron Ferguson
Press and Journal
September 14, 2010

ON THURSDAY, a rather frail, elderly man, dressed in white, will arrive at Edinburgh Airport. Whatever the weather, he is likely to face some storms during his four-day visit to the UK.

Pope Benedict XVI's state visit to Britain comes at a time when the Roman Catholic Church is facing tests on different fronts. The newspaper headlines and television news bulletins over the last few months have not made for good reading and viewing at the Vatican.

I hope that Benedict gets a warm welcome in Scotland, and not just from the country's 600,000 or so Catholics.

The 83-year-old pontiff will be a guest in Scotland, and whether people agree with him or not he has things to say which merit proper attention. As leader of 1.2billion Roman Catholics throughout the world, what he says on Scottish soil will have an international hearing.

Joseph Stalin famously asked, with a sardonic smile: "How many divisions does the Pope have?" Pope Benedict has no divisions of soldiers, but he certainly has a huge global following.

It's because of this that he will face some serious protests during the course of his visit. We'll come to those in a minute.

One thing is clear: this week's papal visit has a different feel to it compared to Pope John Paul II's pastoral visit to Scotland in 1982. The charismatic Polish pontiff was a great communicator with a popular touch. Benedict is a shy man, an intellectual with a sophisticated theological mind.

As Cardinal Ratzinger, the German prelate was known for his intellectual rigour so much so that he was nicknamed "God's Rottweiler". He was seen as a strict enforcer of doctrinal orthodoxy.

When John Paul came to celebrate Mass in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, he was something of a superstar, at a time when the Roman Catholic Church was getting a better press. When Benedict celebrates Mass at Bellahouston on Thursday afternoon, the atmosphere will be more muted, given the troubles which the pontiff faces.

The biggest of these troubles is, of course, the paedophile crisis, which seems to be a fire which never goes out. Like those birthday candles which immediately start burning after they have been blown out, the paedophile story bursts back on to the front pages whenever it seems to have gone quiet.

Last week's report of systematic child abuse by some Roman Catholic clergy in Belgium could not have come at a worse time for the Pope. The explosive report lists evidence of 476 instances of child abuse by priests and bishops going back 50 years.

Peter Adriaenssens, Belgium's leading authority on paedophilia, was appointed by the Catholic Church last year to lead an independent inquiry into the scandal. In April, Roger Vangheluwe, the Bishop of Bruges, resigned after admitting persistently molesting a nephew.

The report documented cases of abuse occurring in almost every diocese in the country and in virtually every school run by the Church. "We can say that no part of the country escapes sexual abuse of minors by one or several church members," said Adriaenssens.

Speaking of the victims, Adriaenssens said that 13 had killed themselves, according to relatives, and a further six had attempted suicide. One woman testified: "Four years of psychotherapy have taught me that silence kills. I have had enormous depressions, going as far as attempted suicide. At other times, I think it would be wise to let sleeping dogs lie. But in the end, I've chosen to speak . . . Since the resignation of the Bishop of Bruges, I am living again in anxiety and fear. And I am far away. I've chosen to live far from my country, hoping that the past won't rejoin me."

Belgian newspapers published tape recordings of one senior cleric seeking to hush up the case of the Bruges bishop. Accusations of cover-up by influential figures have dogged the Vatican's attempts to deal with the damaging effects of the crisis.

It would be quite wrong to say that the Roman Catholic Church is the only public institution to be shamed in this way, but the accusations of putting protection of the Church's reputation ahead of bringing those responsible to justice have damaged the moral authority of the Vatican.

It is expected that there will be demonstrations on behalf of victims during Pope Benedict's visit to Britain.

Other groups who will be seeking to get their message across will include Catholics who favour the ordination of women to the priesthood. There are also calls for priests to be allowed to marry.

Protests are expected also on the issue of how the Catholic Church treats gay people, and also on its refusal to support the use of condoms in dealing with the HIV/Aids pandemic in Africa.

Publicity is a two-edged sword when it comes to high-profile visits. Pope John Paul II had very high approval ratings during the 1982 visit to Scotland, and the publicity was almost universally positive.

The situation this week is quite different. Not only that, Benedict himself is not entirely comfortable in the media spotlight.

A lot will depend on how the Pope handles all this. If he is wise, he will show how the Catholic Church is dealing with the headline issues. Simply to ignore the matter and to lecture people on how to live would be a mistake.

Scotland is a hospitable country. Over centuries, the Catholic voice has been important in shaping the ethics of our nation. A huge amount of caring work has been carried out throughout the world by the Roman Catholic Church. Those who have brought the Church into disrepute are a very small percentage of the whole.

In my time as a minister of the Church of Scotland, I worked closely with Roman Catholic priests and congregations. Many very fine people are involved. A papal visit can be a force for good in re-affirming the faith of the faithful, the people who get on with their lives in a Christian, caring manner.

Any original material on these pages is copyright 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.