The story is breaking that Pope Benedict XVI will be visiting the UK next year, possibly to beatify Cardinal Newman. But neither Downing St nor the Holy See are confirming, or saying when -- so there's really not a lot to report. And given that we knew he was going to visit next year at some point, it's not, strictly speaking, news. But that's not stopping anyone, first, because the reports originate from British government officials accompanying the prime minister, Gordon Brown, to the US; second, because a Vatican announcement is expected very soon.
The Press Association says the trip is expected "in the autumn of 2010" and will be a state visit -- the first ever by a pope to the UK. According to the Daily Mail, Benedict XVI will visit northern Ireland -- something Pope John Paul II could not do back in 1982 -- while PA says it is "unclear" if he will, the BBC that there is a "strong possibility" he will and The Times is sure he won't.
Most of the reports agree on Autumn, except BBC TV News, which earlier today was running with "early next year" (although online the BBC says "details are yet to emerge"); but church sources in Rome quoted by Reuters are saying it will be Spring. The Times is taking a punt on September.
If Autumn, it means that Pope Benedict will be received by David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, rather than the prime minister, Gordon Brown, whom no-one thinks will survive next year's general election in May or June. (Incidentally, this is why a Spring visit is unlikely: no one wants a visiting pontiff during an election campaign). If so, Cameron will be reaping the fruits of plans laid, above all, by former prime minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie, with able assistance in Rome from the British ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Campbell, and a bit of deal-closing by Gordon Brown when he visited the Pope in February.
The previous Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, invited Pope Benedict in 2006 for May 2007 -- but he went to Brazil instead. The breakthrough came when the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman was cleared earlier this year.
The itinerary which Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor originally proposed was a three-day visit, and that seems more likely than the six-day one made by Pope John Paul II in 1982. This visit is likely to include a beatification ceremony in Birmingham, the city which became Newman's home, as well, possibly, as a major public lecture in Oxford in which Pope Benedict will set out his faith and reason stall -- using Cardinal Newman as the great exemplar. And of course London, where there is talk of him celebrating Mass in a football stadium, and a visit to Buckingham Palace. There is also talk of Edinburgh. The details, when they emerge, will tell us much about what both Church and State hope to achieve.
This is a tremendous lift-off for Cardinal Cormac's recently-installed successor, Vincent Nichols, whose previous diocese was Birmingham and who has been intimately involved with accelerating the Newman beatification process. (Pope Benedict hasn't needed much leaning on: he is an enthusiast for the nineteenth century convert's writings, especially on conscience.) Both Pope and Archbishop see a magnificent opportunity in the beatification in situ of one of the great intellects of the nineteenth century, a jewel in the Anglican firmament until he spectacularly converted to Catholicism late in life.
Whenever it happens, next year's visit is a heaven-sent chance to evangelize a deeply sceptical and secular culture, to unite an increasingly divided Church, to reassert Catholicism's increasingly fragile place in the public square, and to build historic new bridges with the Church of England.
Excited? Oh yes.