Pope Benedict XVI's 16-19 September visit to the UK is firmly back on the tracks after three months of confusion following a change in government and seemingly endless changes to the timetable.
At least, that's how it seemed yesterday at the Foreign Office, where the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, and the new prime minister's freshly-appointed personal representative, Lord Patten, gave a press conference. Although the reporting today centred on the rising costs of the visit, what was striking to anyone following its preparations was a new note of confidence and calm.
Lord Patten, the 66-year-old chancellor of Oxford University, is one of the country's most experienced diplomats, a Catholic who serves on the boards of various church organisations, and a veteran troubleshooter: on his resume is the handover of Hong Kong and the authoring of a report on policing in Northern Ireland. Yesterday showed the wisdom of his appointment by David Cameron as his personal representative to ensure the success of the first ever state visit to the UK by a pope.
Lord Patten said the visit would enhance the reputation of the UK and would "put the crowning arch" on the integration of Catholics into British society. He had never felt like a second-class citizen, he said, but if anyone has, the visit would put paid to that feeling. Archbishop Nichols praised Lord Patten, saying that as a result of his appointment "we have very effective working relationships -- we will get things done".
Headlines today concentrate on the costs to the public purse of the visit, set to rise to £12m (excluding policing costs); the exact sum will depend on estimates of turnout, Lord Patten said, adding: "You get huge crowds". The Church has so far raised £5m from parish collections and private donors but "we've got further to go", said Archbishop Nichols, noting later that "not a penny is expected from public funding of those elements that are just of the Catholic faith" That means that the total cost to the visit -- to both state and Church -- is set to be closer to £20m than the £15m originally estimated.
Asked if this could be justified at a time of belt-tightening, Lord Patten said the significance of the visit "makes its own claim upon modest public support". Cuts in public spending, he said, did not mean "we throw out of the window all the normal courtesies of a nation-state" -- they did not mean we were returning to "the days when we would have had to find a squirrel for the pot".
I was curious to hear whether David Cameron's Government - which took over in May from Gordon Brown's Labour administration -- would re-cast the public justification for the visit to taxpayers, most of whom are not Catholic. (The Taxpayers' Alliance, a ferociously right-wing lobby, said yesterday that "no visitor should cost UK taxpayers such a huge sum of money".)
Patten gave three reasons. The first was similar to the previous Government's: the Catholic Church is globally one of the most significant protagonists of development, and the UK funnels public money into Church-run development projects worldwide.
The second was new. The Government seeks to partner with faith communities building a stronger and more just society, said Lord Patten, pointing to the enormous contribution made by Catholics to the relief of poverty in Britain.
The third reason - the importance of the Church worldwide -- was not new but Lord Patten gave it extra emphasis, rattling off the numbers: 1.15bn adherents, 17.5 per cent of the world's population, 11 per cent of the population of the UK. The Pope, he said, was being welcomed to the UK in order to "celebrate" -- he was referring to the beatification of Cardinal Newman -- "one of the greatest Englishmen of the nineteenth century", who was a "champion of pluralism in education". Making Cardinal Newman relevant to contemporary Britons is one of the hardest tasks for the Church in this visit; stressing his importance to education is a good idea.
Lord Patten outlined the timetable, most of which is already in the public domain:
- 16 September: Benedict XVI is received by the Queen in Scotland at the Palace of Holyrood House in Edinburgh. He travels (in the Popemobile) through Edinburgh and onto Glasgow, where he says Mass at Bellahouston Park.
- 17 September: Benedict XVI spends the morning in south-west London at St Mary's University (Twickenham) where he has a dialogue with people of different faiths in public life, and speaks via weblink to thousands of schoolchildren around the country. In the afternoon he visits the Archbishop of Canterbury and leading Anglican bishops at Lambeth Palace (which faces Parliament across the Thames), then goes on to address 1,000 civic leaders in Westminster Hall in the Palace of Westminster (Parliament) -- the place where St Thomas More was tried and condemned for treason. Then he crosses Parliament Square for Vespers at Westminster Abbey, where he prays -- with Dr Rowan Williams -- at the eleventh-century tomb of St Edward the Confessor. The Pope then retires, but his retinue -- cardinals, bishops and monsignori from various Vatican departments -- attend a state banquet hosted by the Queen in Pope Benedict XVI's honour at Buckingham Palace.
- 18 September: Saturday is taken up with pastoral events, beginning with Mass at Westminster Cathedral and a meeting with the prime minister, David Cameron, the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, and the leader of the opposition, Harriet Harman. Pope Benedict then visits a residential home for the elderly -- which gives plenty of opportunity for messages to counter moves towards legal euthanasia -- before holding a prayer vigil in Hyde Park.
- 19 September: Sunday is spent in Birmingham, where Pope Benedict will beatify Cardinal Newman at a Mass attended by about 90,000 in Cofton Park, next door to Rednal -- where Newman and his companions kept their summer house and where Newman was buried. From Rednal the Pope will visit the Oratory in Birmingham to meet the community and pray in Newman's rooms. After that, Pope Benedict will travel to the seminary of Oscott to talk to the bishops of England and Wales, before flying back to Rome.
Archbishop Nichols said there would be many "iconic images" during the visit: the Pope with the Queen, entering Lambeth Palace, speaking in the Hall where St Thomas More was tried, praying with the Archbishop of Canterbury at the tomb of St Edward the Confessor, and so on. These moments "will give us the chance again to read our shared Christian history" and to realise that "faith is not a problem to be solved but a gift to be re-discovered afresh". Benedict XVI, he said, "will invite us to look again at this gift".
He said Pope Benedict was "aware of the momentum and magnitude of the visit" and was greatly looking forward to it.
In the next few days details will be announced of how people will be able to follow and be with the Pope during his visit -- on TV, on the web, or attending the events -- and there would be a detailed booklet containing the liturgies, which Catholics and others could follow, Archbishop Nichols said, adding that the events were open to non-Catholics but attendance would need to be organised via Catholic parishes for security reasons.
"We in the Catholic community are very conscious that the UK will be the centre of world attention, and we are proud to show all that is best about this country", he added.