Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain next month is a chance to show a secularised society that religious faith is a gift rather than a problem, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster has said.
The president of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales said he hoped the state visit from September 16 to 19 would mark a “new phase” in relations between Britain and the Catholic Church.
Writing in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, he said that faith was increasingly being seen as a private matter which, he suggested, many Christians were tempted to hide away from others who were hostile to the notion of the existence of God.
He said he hoped the “historic event” of the first state visit of a reigning pope would help the people of Britain understand the positive nature of religious faith.
“We hope that the illuminating presence of Benedict XVI might help many in our lands to understand that the faith in God is not a problem to resolve, but a gift to rediscover,” he wrote. “Faith in God brings great riches and joy to men. He is the liberation and the guide that we seek, motive for inspiration and perseverance, source of forgiveness and compassion.”
Archbishop Nichols said that when the Pope is greeted by the Queen in Edinburgh on September 16 the pair will discuss the importance of Christianity to British society. He said the pair harbour shared concerns “for the well-being of the peoples of the world, for the role and value of Christian teaching and the importance of having stable institutions for the benefit of society”.
His comments come after a period in which the Church has had to fight bitterly to retain its rights in education and to govern its charities in accordance with its teachings.
This period has been paralleled by a rise in an aggressive form of secularism which dictates that religion should have no public role.
As a result the papal visit has met with hostility since it was announced in the spring with anti-Catholic activists threatening to disrupt events or even arrest the Pope for alleged “crimes against humanity”.
Although Pope Benedict was invited to Britain first by Tony Blair and then by Gordon Brown there has been an outcry at the taxpayer footing much of the £20million bill.
Worshippers have since been asked to contribute from their own pockets after the Catholic Church in England and Wales later said it would cover the costs of the purely “pastoral” events, estimated at about £7million.
The visit has also even met with hostility from some Foreign Office officials, with one mid-ranking diplomat suspended for suggesting in a memo that was sent to Downing Street that the Pope should open an abortion clinic or launch his own brand of “Benedict Condoms” while in Britain.
English Catholic officials are hoping that the Pope will not further inflame anti-Catholic sentiment by speaking out against gay marriage or adoption, or abortion and divorce.
They are focusing on common ground between the Vatican and the British government in such areas as the environment and international development. But this was thrown into jeopardy last month when Andrew Mitchell, the International Development Secretary, announced an “unprecedented focus” on abortion and contraception in all future British overseas aid programmes.
The Pope will also be visiting the UK just a month after the last of 11 Catholic adoption agencies lost its legal battle to stay open in the face of gay rights laws compelling them to assess same-sex couples as adopters.
The Pope denounced such British equality laws as a “violation of the natural law” when he met the bishops of England and Wales in Rome earlier this year.
The highpoint of the papal visit will be the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Cofton Park, Birmingham, on September 19.
Writing in L’Osservatore Romano, Archbishop Nichols said that Cardinal Newman was a “man that understood how mind and heart should go hand in hand in the great enterprises of life, the greatest of which is the search for God and the salvific relationship with Him”.
Pope Benedict has been a lifelong admirer of Cardinal Newman’s “theology of conscience” and has described the Victorian as the greatest thinker on conscience since St Augustine of Hippo. Such theology was also an inspiration of German wartime resistance members Sophie and Hans Scholl – who were beheaded by the Nazis in 1943 – and their White Rose movement which had urged the German people to rise up against Adolf Hitler.