Britain prepares for Pope's visit

Pope Benedict XVI takes his campaign to revive Christianity in an increasingly secular Europe to Britain on Thursday.

Pope Benedict XVI takes his campaign to revive Christianity in an increasingly secular Europe to Britain on Thursday. He faces a daunting task in a nation largely at odds with his policies and where disgust over the church sex abuse scandal runs high.

Add to that centuries of anti-Catholic sentiment, recent tensions with the Anglican Church and Benedict's plan to beatify one of the most famous Anglican converts to Catholicism, and the four-day trip is shaping up as one of his most delicate to date.

The Popemobile is seen Tuesday behind two no-parking cones at the Metropolitan Police Training Centre in north London ahead of the four-day official state visit by Pope Benedict XVI to Britain. ((Sang Tan/Associated Press))
For a gaffe-prone papacy whose handling of the abuse scandal has been problematic at best, the potential for pitfalls looms large. Already, organizers have scaled back expectations for the turnout amid high security and costs to pilgrims, saying Tuesday that only 55,000 are expected at Benedict's main event, down from 80,000.

Benedict asked for prayers for the visit and seemed almost apologetic when he thanked the British for the "vast amount of work" that had gone into preparations. The visit will cost British taxpayers more than $19 million, not counting extra policing costs, at a time when Britain is facing a crushing public debt that will likely lead to sweeping cuts in public spending and job losses.

"I have no problems with the Pope coming to visit," Mark Elliott, a 48-year-old Anglican banker said as he waited for the train one day last week in London. "He has the right to go anywhere in the world and the Catholics will surely welcome him."

But he added: "There are better ways to spend the money than on his trip. There are the homeless, unemployed and charities that could use the money more. That's more important."

For the first time, pilgrims will be asked to share some of the burden, paying £25 pounds, or just under $40, for tickets and transport to the main event: the beatification Sunday of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Birmingham.

Government officials have defended the cost, noting that Benedict is an invited head of state and that it cost far more to host the one-day meeting of the G20 finance ministers last year. Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien said the "moral value" of the trip, which begins Thursday when the Pope is greeted by Queen Elizabeth in Edinburgh, far outweighs any cost.

"It improves morality in the Catholic Christian community," he said.

1st state visit

It's the first state visit by a pope to Britain, birthplace of the Church of England, which split with Rome in 1534 when English King Henry VIII was refused a marriage annulment.

Pope John Paul II made a non-state pastoral visit in 1982, the first time a pontiff set foot on English soil. He was at the height of his popularity and, even though he spoke out against the Falklands War, he received a hero's welcome.

This time, amid the abuse scandal and recession, opposition to Benedict's hard line against homosexuality, abortion and using condoms to prevent AIDS has spurred opponents to organize a "Protest the Pope" march Saturday.

"Pope Nope" T-shirts have been spotted, and public discussions on the celibacy requirement for priests in the Roman Catholic Church have been scheduled.

Such hostility isn't unique to Britain and Benedict is no stranger to opposition. But the tone is a reminder of a historic divide between the officially Protestant nation and the Catholic Church. To this day Britons light fireworks each year to mark the failed gunpowder plot of 1605, in which Guy Fawkes and other Catholic plotters tried to blow up Parliament and restore Catholic rule to England.

Matters weren't helped by a now-infamous Foreign Office memo, leaked to a newspaper in April, in which junior staffers joked that Benedict could open an abortion clinic, launch a range of condoms or bless a gay marriage during his visit.

The sex abuse scandal hasn't been on British front pages for some time, but it exploded anew in Belgium last week following the publication of an independent report in which hundreds of victims revealed harrowing accounts of molestation that resulted in at least 13 suicides.

Vatican officials have declined to confirm that Benedict will meet abuse victims, noting that such meetings have never been confirmed until after they have occurred. But local organizers have said arrangements are being made.

Catholic officials have brushed off opposition to the visit and assured that the sex scandal won't overshadow the welcome Benedict will receive from Catholics, who make up less than 10 per cent of the population. They recall that Benedict has gone to far more hostile countries in his 16 previous foreign trips as pope.

"There's always controversy about papal visits," said the Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. "Wherever he goes, there's always a period of criticism of the church. And then when he arrives, the sun comes out."