A "top-secret" Vatican delegation which everyone seemed to know about was in the UK last week to plan the details of the papal visit expected 16-19 September. There'll be no official announcement of the itinerary until at least March, but this is what has been sketched in:
Thurs 16: Pope received by Queen in Scotland, at Holyrood.
Fri 17: Pope received by Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, at Lambeth Palace in London; then goes to Parliament to address about 1,000 MPs and dignitaries; then crosses the road to preach at the mother church of the British state, Westminster Abbey.
Sat 18: Mass at Westminster Cathedral; and in the afternoon some sort of large, outdoor youth event.
Sun 19: Beatification of Cardinal Newman at a major outdoor Mass at Coventry airport (which is inside the Diocese of Birmingham, the diocese where his Cause is based).
Much here, of course, could still change before the itinerary is officially announced in March. But the basics look as if they are in place.
The Lambeth Palace-Parliament-Westminster Abbey triangle offers a wonderful ad extra opportunity to address the neuralgic issues of equality laws versus freedom of religion, and to lay out a compelling vision of church-state co-operation. Pope Benedict will want to persuade sceptics and scoffers that the best guarantee of their own cherished liberties lies in the preservation of the Church's presence in the public square.
Saturday and Sunday will be principally ad intra -- directed at Britain's Catholics, and onlooking Christians (especially Anglicans). But the beatification ceremony is likely to reprise his Friday themes, showing how freedom, truth, conscience and obedience all tie up in the life and works of this most brilliant English intellect.
My bet is that this visit will be, for Benedict XVI, one of the highlights of his pontificate, because it touches so directly on the core issues he cares about most.