Organisers frame UK papal visit as 'gift'

Two things about Benedict XVI's UK 16-19 September visit became clearer this week: the reason for the recent uncertainties about the itinerary, and the messages which the Pope's three days on British soil are intended to send.

The Archbishop of Westminster's press conference on Tuesday shed light on just how difficult it has been for the organisers of the papal visit until now to negotiate with the Government during the election period -- and afterwards, when the officials were replaced by new appointees. The frustration shines through the Archbishop's remarks. Since Lord Patten's appointment on 7 June, +Vincent Nichols said, “we’ve had a clear line of contact with the Government, which has a decisive quality about it”. Later, in answer to a question from the BBC, he added that "there are still things to be made clear but that process is now moving forward very well and very quickly since there is in place someone with whom we can have decisive discussions".

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Implication: before Lord Patten's appointment, it wasn't clear who was in charge, who was making decisions, nor whom they should talk to.

Communication with Government is essential because it is the state, not the Church, that is in charge of organising the visit -- even down to signing the contracts. Although not exactly a state visit -- there will be no transporting of Pope Benedict in the Queen's horse-drawn carriages; and the state banquet in his honour will not, actually, include him - -it has "equivalent status to a State visit", meaning that the Queen has invited Pope Benedict to address her subjects.

He will also address his own flock, of course -- at a big open-air Mass in Glasgow, and at Westminster Cathedral; in Hyde Park (youth), at a Catholic college in west London (there are plans for a "virtual school assembly") -- and these are the events which the Church must fund.

So the cost must be divided. "What is clear is that the Catholic community carries the costs of those things that are proper to it because of the manifestations of Catholic faith that are part of this state visit," said +Vincent, adding: "What is equally clear is that the Government funds a state visit in its movement and in its security."

But while the principles are clear, their outworking in practice is not. Hence the negotiations, made more awkward still by the change of Government. 

The Archbishop gently swatted away allegations in the Spectator that Coventry Airport was not booked for the beatification of Cardinal Newman ("The plans that we have on table involve Coventry Airport") or that costs to the Church were set to double to £15m (they are "intending and hoping" to come in within the £7m budget) or that in some way the organisers of the visit were discouraging large turnouts ("My impression from authorities in the cities is that they are anticipating big turnouts and will make generous provision for people to see the Pope when he is in the major cities").

He also launched a new 30-page booklet about the visit (download it here), and with it the papal visit logo [picture],  designed by the glass artist Brian Clarke, whose work includes the Pyramid of Peace in Kazakhstan, the King Faisal Foundation in Saudi Arabia, the Holocaust Memorial in Darmstadt, and the Stamford Cone in Connecticut. Clarke was apparently inspired by Pope Benedict XVI's November 2009 call to artists to re-engage with faith as the source of beauty.

The logo is a detail from  the stained glass window Clarke has created for the papal nunciature in south-west London, which will be blessed by the Pope during his visit in September. The work  -- which celebrates the intellectual and spiritual achievements of Thomas More, John Fisher and John Henry Newman -- is in transparent stained glass with strong blues and reds that recall the rubies and ultramarines of medieval stained glass.

The part that is being used for the papal visit logo pictures a candle (representing "the fragility of faith", said +Vincent) which contains a small heart in the flame just above the wick -- a reference to the visit's motto which is also, famously Cardinal Newman's -- cor ad cor loquitur. These words and images, said +Vincent, capture the nature of the papal visit -- of "invitation, engagement, dialogue". 

“If I had to sum up the hope for this visit, and I believe a fundamental intention of the papacy of Benedict XVI, it would be: it is to show that faith in God is not a problem to be solved but a gift to be rediscovered”, +Vincent said.

It is clever idea. Religion is so often discussed in Britain - and elsewhere in secular-minded Europe -- as a challenge, a disturbance, something to be banned or tamed or assimilated. By offering the Christian faith as a gift, Benedict XVI will cut across that notion.

Which gifts? The booklet suggests some: Catholic social teaching ("a vision of true partnership and solidarity between peoples", an emphasis on relationships rather than liberty or equality), the Church's global presence and its role as "global health provider" (5,246 hospitals and 15,208 houses for the elderly across the world) on the frontline of fighting poverty and climate change, nuclear weapons and so on. (Right-wing Catholics have tried to dismiss these sections as "political correctness", although it is hard to see how people could take the Church seriously if it were ignoring Matthew 25). 

Then there are the Church's gifts to Britain -- 2,300 schools in England and Wales, as well as 3,000 churches, 4,400 active diocesan priests along with 5,000 nuns and 1,069 religious priests (defined as "members of male religious orders" -- but surely there are non-ordained monks and friars?). The last two chapters of the booklet ask: "How do I connect with God?" and "What is the Catholic Church for?" which are both very good questions. The second ends with this rousing paragraph:

From a tiny community of faithful followers 2,000 years ago, the communities of faith quickly spread. As a human institution at times it has been powerful; at other times persecuted. Sometimes the power has done more harm to its fundamental nature than the persecution. Through all this the Catholic Church has proved extraordinarily resilient, one of the great driving forces behind human civilisation and human culture. Today the Catholic Church is genuinely universal -- present in most countries of the world with some 1.2 billion members, a fifth of the world's population. The Church's witness is manifest in these worshipping communities and also through charitable endeavours. in schools, hospitals, and the lives of faithful service, often unsung, which so many good people live. It is especially these lives of quiet holiness, of sacrifice, sometimes in the face of persecution, which nourish and sustain the Church in each generation, and show the Church as what it is called to be  -- the body of Christ in the world.

Austen Ivereigh

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