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The land of St Ninian awaits Benedict XVI

· Visit of the Holy Father to Scotland ·

Pope Benedict XVI will arrive in Edinburgh, the Capital City of Scotland, on the 16th of September to begin a four day visit to the United Kingdom. Edinburgh is the See of the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, Cardinal Keith Patrick O'Brien and it is he who will welcome the Holy Father to his diocese on his arrival to our country. Immediately on his arrival the Pope will be taken to the Royal Palace of Holyrood House where he will have an historic meeting with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, members of government, parliamentarians and other invited guests from Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Catholics of Scotland feel immensely proud to be able to welcome the Holy Father at the beginning of his visit, on a day when he will join with us in celebrating the Feast of St Ninian of Galloway. Tradition recounts how Ninian travelled from Rome where he had been ordained a bishop, and arrived in Scotland more than 1,500 years ago in 397 AD. He established a small Christian community on the southernmost tip of South West Scotland which he named Candida Casa, translated into English as the White House and now known as Whithorn, a corruption in the Scots dialect of “White House”. Whithorn today has a strong claim to be Scotland's earliest town and one of the first permanent settlements in the country.

Although the constraints of time in a very full schedule mean that Pope Benedict will not visit Whithorn, St. Ninian will not be far away during the course of the day. While the Pope is in Holyrood Palace a parade to mark Ninian's feast day will take place in the centre of Edinburgh, involving children from schools across Scotland. There will be an historic pageant marking important moments in the development of the land we now know as Scotland; the cultural heritage of Scotland will be celebrated in traditional bagpipe music.

Having taken his leave of Queen Elizabeth, the Pope will drive through the centre of Edinburgh in the Popemobile where he will be greeted by children and others who will have gathered to witness history being made. Following an early afternoon pause in his programme to allow for rest and prayer, Pope Benedict will travel to Glasgow where he will again be driven through the crowd at Bellahouston park in the Popemobile, before celebrating Mass in front of a congregation numbering more than 100,000, who will be joined by millions of others around the world watching on television or over the internet.

The massed choirs of several hundred singers, along with accompanying musicians, will support the congregation in a prayerful and unforgettable celebration of Mass on the Feast of St Ninian. We look forward with anticipation to hear the words the Holy Father will address to us in his homily.

In view of the recent decision of the Holy Father to establish a Pontifical Council for the new evangelisation, his words to the people of Scotland will be particularly poignant. We live in a land which saw the first seeds of the Gospel sown more than 1,500 years ago. It grew into a land of saints and scholars and was known for its association with missionaries like Columba, holy women and men like Margaret, Queen of Scotland, scholars like John Duns Scotus, renowned monastic communities such as the Border Abbeys and famous centres of learning which developed through the foundation by the Church of great universities in the late medieval period.

A great rupture with the past took place in the 16th century in the form of the Protestant Reformation when almost the whole population of mainland Scotland and many of the islands gradually abandoned the Catholic faith of their forebears to embrace Presbyterianism. The celebration of Mass was proscribed and priests were hunted down and expelled. In one famous case the Jesuit priest, John Ogilvie was captured while ministering to the tiny Catholic population of Glasgow. He was imprisoned and put to death at Glasgow Cross in 1615. In 1976 John Ogilvie was canonised by Pope Paul VI.

From the death of John Ogilvie until the arrival of Catholic immigrants from Ireland in the early 19th century there were virtually no Catholics in the main cities and towns of Scotland. Gradually, however, the Catholic population began to establish itself, and a Catholic presence soon began to emerge. Mostly, however, the people were poor and uneducated. The need for the education of the children of these Catholic immigrants was appreciated and as the Catholic population grew so did the number of priests and religious women and men who came to serve them. Catholic education was delivered alongside the education which took place in schools inspired by a Presbyterian ethic. Despite the quality of the education they received young Catholics found it practically impossible to gain access to university education and to the professions. Encouraged and supported by the perseverance of priests, brothers and to a very significant extent by religious congregations of women, the small but growing Catholic community continued to believe in the value of education. So with great vision and many sacrifices every effort was made to ensure that Catholic children would be able to attend a Catholic school. A small number of enlightened members of the wider society supported these efforts from the outset so that the Catholic school system was able to grow and develop in parallel with the system provided by the government, until in 1918 the State agreed to take over financial and administrative responsibility for Catholic schools while allowing the Church to retain significant responsibility for governance, in this way ensuring the Catholic management and identity of Catholic schools within the state sector which continues until the present time.

The Catholic population in Scotland continued to grow during the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Those who had largely come from Ireland were added to by others from Italy and central and Eastern Europe. Increasingly in the course of the 20th century Catholics contributed to the whole of Scottish society, in the workplace and in the professions. There have continued to be strong links with Catholic communities elsewhere, especially with Ireland, where still today many of the priests serving the Church in Scotland have their roots. Scottish Catholic connections are to be found in Canada where in the Diocese of Antigonish (whose Patron is St Ninian) the Catholic descendants of Scots immigrants still speak Scots Gaelic. Other links can be traced to Australia and it is with great joy and pride that Scots Catholics, especially those from the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles look forward to the canonisation in October this year of Blessed Mary MacKillop whose father and mother emigrated from Scotland to Australia in the 19th century.

In 1982 Pope John Paul II visited Scotland and made a lasting impression not only on Catholics but also on the wider Christian community and whole of society. He encouraged the Catholic Church in Scotland to play a full part in Scottish life and especially to move forward in the ecumenical pilgrimage with our Christian brothers and sisters. In 2010 we eagerly look forward to the visit of Pope Benedict as we face the future with confidence. In recent years the Catholic community has become richer due to a new wave of immigration from central and Eastern Europe, especially from Poland, and from southern India. The need for inter-religious engagement has become much more pressing that it was thirty years ago. We trust that when he comes among us the voice of the Holy Father will be listened to by our brothers and sisters in Christ, by people of other religions and by all people of good will. For our own part as the Catholic community in Scotland we can be sure that as our Pope he will confirm us in the faith and give us the encouragement and support we need to face the challenges of this present time and to continue to bear witness before the whole of Scottish society to Christ who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

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