|A Cool Welcome for Benedict in Britain
September 15, 2010
Pope Benedict XVI is embarking on a missionary journey to the UK in a bid to get the heathen Brits back into the fold. But the pope can expect a cool welcome as militant secularists and victims of pedophile priests prepare to protest.
The Catholic Church is used to getting nothing but trouble from the British.
It was the Tudor King Henry VIII who, angry over the pope's refusal to let him end an inconvenient marriage, began closing monasteries in England and confiscating their property in 1536. Henry then declared himself "Defender of the Faith" and head of the newly formed Church of England. The king's favorite painting, "The Evangelists Stoning the Pope," still astonishes visitors to Hampton Court Palace near London.
Three centuries after Henry VIII's rule, British traveler and naturalist Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution, a belief the Vatican considered suspect. Darwin's theory planted doubts throughout the world about Christian creationism and relegated Adam and Eve, along with the Garden of Eden, to the realm of myth.
The United Kingdom remains a stronghold of intelligent atheism. Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins created a veritable bible for atheists with his book "The God Delusion," while astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has taken the Creator out of the history of the universe entirely in his new book "The Grand Design."
Many in Britain appear quite at home with a flippant sort of agnosticism. One recent ad campaign plastered London buses with the slogan, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."
Ready to Retaliate
Now, though, God looks to be getting ready to retaliate. Pope Benedict XVI, the 83-year-old head of the Catholic Church, lands this Thursday in the Scottish capital Edinburgh. The locals there certainly haven't forgotten how Henry VIII's daughter Elizabeth I brutally ordered the execution of Scotland's last Catholic queen, Mary, Queen of Scots.
Coming not quite 30 years after John Paul II became the first modern pope to visit the UK, this will be the first ever official state visit by a pope to Britain. Tony Blair was the one who first extended the invitation, back when he was still prime minister and before he converted to Catholicism. He did so on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II, whose official titles also style her "Defender of the Faith," a role rather similar to that of the pope.
This was always going to be a difficult trip, and it won't make it any easier that Pope Benedict XVI has a tendency to throw obstacles in his own path. A 2006 papal visit to Turkey took place amid large-scale protests, after the pope antagonized Muslims around the world with a speech at Regensburg University. His 2009 visit to Israel was similarly plagued by tension, after he reintroduced a controversial prayer for the conversion of Jews to the Good Friday mass.
Now Benedict has put additional strain on the Church of England in the run-up to his visit. The Church's decision to ordain women as priests and bishops -- a "grave crime" on par with sexual abuse, according to the Vatican -- already has Anglicans on the verge of a serious split. The Vatican is attempting to capitalize on the situation by offering disenchanted, conservative clergymen the opportunity to convert to the one true faith -- Roman Catholicism. Potential converts from the Church of England would even be allowed to remain married.
Pope Benedict also plans to beatify a famous 19th century convert to Catholicism during this trip. John Henry Newman, originally an Anglican priest, rose to be a Catholic cardinal, as well as a prominent theologian -- a man after Joseph Ratzinger's own heart.
But encroaching on this territory isn't likely to jeopardize the upcoming visit. Rowan Williams, head of the Church of England, plans to pray together with the pope at Westminster Abbey. Indeed, this may prove to be the easiest part of the trip, since many others in the country have resolved to give the pope a cool -- or even hostile -- reception.
Indifferent to the Pope
British subjects can certainly find cause for complaint in the cost of the papal visit. The pope and his entourage will spend four days and three nights in Great Britain. The elderly pontiff goes to bed early and must plan hours-long breaks into each day. The visit will cost more than 20 million pounds (€24 million or $31 million). And because he is there as an official guest of the queen, the Catholic Church will cover only a portion of the expenses, with taxpayers footing around €15 million of the bill.
Only one in 11 British citizens is Catholic. The vast majority -- 63 percent of the population, according to a recent survey -- is indifferent to the pope's visit. Yet everyone is expected to pay -- something three out of four people surveyed consider unfair. There is also widespread outrage over Benedict's role in the scandal over pedophile priests, his refusal to endorse condoms as protection against the AIDS virus and his position on homosexuals and on sex. Pope Benedict is, in a sense, the antithesis of modern Britain.
Secular groups have launched a "Protest the Pope" campaign to demonstrate against the pontiff, and the National Secular Society is selling a "Pope Nope" T-shirt. Disenchanted Catholics are also planning to protest. Human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, in a book published last week, even accused Benedict of crimes against humanity. Meanwhile, a host of papal critics are looking seriously into the possibility of arresting Ratzinger during his time on British soil. And on Wednesday evening, just ahead of the pope's arrival, the BBC will make fresh revelations about pedophile priests.
Police are not the only ones nervous about the impending visit. The government's coordinator for the papal visit, Chris Patten, who is the former governor of Hong Kong, has said that Britain's reputation is at stake. During a meeting at Scotland Yard, some of the pope's most bitter opponents were advised not to overdo it when exercising their democratic freedom to demonstrate.
Vatican strategists have chosen "Heart Speaks unto Heart," a motto used by John Henry Newman, as the official slogan for the pope's visit. It's an odd choice, since the former theology professor Joseph Ratzinger is not exactly known as a warm figure who wins hearts all around.
Benedict's predecessor, although also deeply conservative, managed to impress opponents as well as supporters. The current pope, meanwhile, alienates even his allies. John Paul II radiated charisma and warmth; Benedict XVI is the intellectuals' pope, with a knack for putting his foot in his mouth. The previous pope grew up in Poland and fought against totalitarianism; the incumbent was a member of the Hitler Youth as a boy -- a fact the British press never fails to mention when reporting on the pope.
The German pope also reversed the excommunication of Holocaust denier Richard Williamson, and he still has trouble pronouncing the English "th" sound. None of this makes him a sympathetic figure in Britain. "The Devil himself could hardly have got a worse press," wrote the Daily Mail.
'Saying Sorry Is Not Enough'
A look at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow reveals the yawning chasm between the two pontiffs. John Paul II's mass there 28 years ago was attended by 300,000 worshippers. This time, for Benedict, organizers have arranged for just 100,000 spots -- even though they've also lined up British television and singing sensation Susan Boyle as a sort of opening act. By the end of last week, only 75,000 tickets had sold. One obstacle might be the fact that worshippers are expected to cough up 20 pounds (€24 or $30) to attend the mass, only to then put up with uncomfortable conditions. They will have to wait for hours, umbrellas are banned and there is no seating.
Sue Cox, 63, from the Midlands, would like to meet the pope. She would tell him that "saying sorry is not enough." Cox was 10 years old the first time a priest groped her. When she was 13, the same priest raped her. Her pious mother knew about the abuse and told her daughter it was part of God's plan and that she should pray for the priest. "It destroyed a large part of my life," Cox says. She finds it unacceptable that Pope Benedict XVI will now be the queen's official guest. "That's an honor he doesn't deserve," she says.
Victims of abuse are traveling from far-flung corners of the Commonwealth such as Canada and Australia for the pope's visit. Benedict will receive only a handful, if any, of these individuals and likely at a private location, as he has often done before. The few he does meet will be handpicked by the church.
Excluding the public from such meetings is a sign of respect toward the victims, says Vincent Nichols, archbishop of Westminster. Sue Cox disagrees: "Many of us no longer want to be anonymous." Nichols has ignored her statements.
The Culture of Death
The pope wants to use this visit to demonstrate that faith is a beautiful thing even in today's world, says the archbishop of Westminster, and sees the trip as something of a religious mission. His concern, according to the archbishop, is spiritual guidance in one of the Western European countries where secularism long ago won the upper hand.
"Britain, and in particular London, has been and is the geopolitical epicenter of the culture of death," claims Edmund Adamus, a high-ranking clergyman in the Diocese of Westminster. Adamus laments the same things Pope Benedict always laments -- too much sex, contraception, divorce, hedonism, abortion and laws that allow homosexuals to adopt. In other words, modern Britain, a country not all that different in these respects from modern Germany, France or even Spain, once a strictly Catholic nation.
Of course, there are also people in Britain who feel honored by the pope's visit. Adamus, for example, is looking forward to the pontiff's arrival on Thursday bringing a "kindly light" to the country.
Scottish composer James MacMillan, who wrote the music for the papal mass in Glasgow, also considers British grousing about the pope to be meaningless. A devout Catholic, MacMillan calls anti-Catholic complaints "the new anti-Semitism of the liberal intellectual."
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