· Benedict XVI's Visit to the United Kingdom ·
How well I remember the first visit of a reigning Pontiff to Britain. Pope John Paul II arrived on 28 May 1982. It was my privilege to welcome him at Gatwick Airport because I was then Bishop of Arundel and Brighton within which Gatwick was situated.
It was a dramatic time for Britain because of the on-going war with Argentina over the Falklands-Malvinas Islands. This was the reason why the visit of Pope John Paul was not a State Visit but a Pastoral one. It turned out to be an extraordinary, happy week with celebrations held all over England, Scotland and Wales.
Each event focussed on one of the Seven Sacraments which was a wonderful way of showing the people of Britain, by means of television, something of the traditions and liturgy of the Catholic Church. It was also an eye-opener for so many people to see how Catholic people of all walks of life were so totally integrated into the life of this country.
Many stories have been told about that visit. I particularly like the one of the occasion when Pope John Paul was leaving Scotland and a very large crowd had come to say farewell and were singing the song, “Will ye nay come back again?” The Pope asked the Archbishop of Glasgow, Mons. Tom Winning, what the song was and Archbishop Winning said, “Holy Father, that song is a desire for Bonnie Prince Charlie to come back again to Scotland” (1720-1788). Pope John Paul said, “Oh, I met him last week!!” (referring to Prince Charles (1948 — ).
Among the many hugely significant events was the visit of Pope John Paul to Canterbury Cathedral where he met all the Anglican Bishops and also the leaders of other Churches in England and Wales. It was a very moving event, which gave great encouragement and hope to the ecumenical movement and particularly to our growing friendship and unity with the Anglican Church. The great friendship continues but, sadly, not all the expectations of that time have been realised. However, the search and the pilgrimage for the unity that is the Will of Christ continues and will never cease to be the on-going desire and will of the Catholic Church.
The visit of Pope Benedict XVI in September is, happily, a State Visit because the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, officially invited the Pope to visit our country and this invitation had been reiterated by many of us including, of course, the Bishops of England, Scotland and Wales. The Britain of today is much changed from twenty-eight years ago. Our society has become very secular and Christians of various denominations have found it more and more difficult to have a strong and central place in the culture of our country.
However, the Catholic Church has a very significant voice in witnessing to Christian teaching and values in England and Wales. It is, of course, a Christian voice in the market place, striving to make sure that there is freedom within the culture of our country to express the Catholic Church's teaching and discipline. This is not to impose but to offer it, as a real contribution to the life and health of England and Wales. The same would be true of the Church in Scotland.
Pope Benedict will have a very warm welcome in our country. Catholics are absolutely delighted that he is coming and look forward to seeing him either by means of television or, for very many, at the different functions at which Pope Benedict will preside during his four days in Britain. I would like to express some aspects of the visit which to me are very important.
The first is meeting with Queen Elizabeth at Holyrood Castle in Edinburgh. It is interesting that the Queen and Pope Benedict are very much of the same age, with Queen Elizabeth just a year older than Pope Benedict. Both have rich experience in their long lives and I know the Queen, too, is much looking forward to meeting Pope Benedict on his arrival in Scotland. The warmth and welcome given to Pope Benedict by Queen Elizabeth, the Monarch so loved and respected by her people, is of great significance, given the history of the English Monarchy over the past centuries. It will set the tone for the four days that he spends in this country.
Secondly, I would like to stress the importance of Pope Benedict's address in Westminster Hall. This is the great Hall of the English Parliament where St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More were tried and condemned in the reign of King Henry VIII. Here, Pope Benedict will be addressing parliamentarians, diplomats, and other leaders of British society. In many ways, this will be Pope Benedict's address to the British people in which he will express, I am sure, the Catholic Church's understanding of fruitful dialogue within a largely secularized country.
How good, too, that the Pope should pay a visit to Westminster Abbey where there will be Evening Prayer with Bishops of the Anglican Communion and other Church leaders. Westminster Abbey is steeped in more than a thousand years of history. Benedictine monks first came to this site in the middle of the 10th century. The Abbey has been the Coronation church since 1066 and is the final resting place of 17 monarchs. How right that there should be prayer here, at a place which records so much of the ancient history of Christendom in this land and its chequered history through the ages.
On Saturday morning, Pope Benedict will celebrate Mass with the Bishops of England and Wales in Westminster Cathedral in the presence of representatives of the priests, religious and lay people of England and Wales. The communion that exists between the Bishops and the successor of St Peter has always been a hallmark of the Catholic Bishops of this country. This celebration will reflect the unending loyalty and fidelity of the bishops, priests and people of this country to the Holy See. Here, Pope Benedict will be able to confirm the faith of the Catholic people, reminding them of the great gift that they have received by the Holy Spirit and encouraging them to continue to give witness to their faith in the context of their own local cities, towns and villages.
Finally, Pope Benedict will travel to Birmingham where, before almost 100,000 people, he will celebrate Mass, during which he will beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman. Newman's life was one of pilgrimage and of faith. We still sing today his famous hymn, “Lead kindly light amidst the encircling gloom”. It is still a kind of touch-stone for the pilgrimage of many people, but especially of Newman himself. His life was a painful pilgrimage. He began as an Evangelical, became a High Anglican and then converted to the Catholic Church. By becoming a Catholic the pilgrimage continued until, in a wonderful way, Pope Leo XIII near the end of the life of Newman, created him a Cardinal. In another hymn, Cardinal Newman expressed his undying belief: “Firmly I believe and truly, God is three and God is one, and I next acknowledge duly, manhood taken by the Son”. There is so much to say about this extraordinary, holy man. I know Pope Benedict admires Newman and I am sure that he will speak to us of why Newman is such a significant figure, not only for Catholics but for Anglicans and countless other seekers after truth. He died in July 1890 and the pall over the coffin bore his cardinal's motto, Cor ad cor, loquitur [The heart speaks to the heart]. On his memorial tablet were inscribed the words he had chosen, Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem [From the shade and symbols to the truth].
There could be no one better than Pope Benedict to speak about this extraordinary Christian who has both fascinated and nourished Christian life in this country and beyond over so many years. Cardinal Newman was very interested in both the heart and the mind and the link between the two. He was learned and never avoided intellectual rigour but he was also fascinated by how it is that a human being comes to understand and to love; particularly to understand and love God.
The prayers of all the Catholic people and beyond will be with and for Pope Benedict as he comes to visit us.
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