Archbishop Nichols rejects reports forecasting low attendance at big papal events

The Archbishop of Westminster has said that the Masses for the papal visit will be “pretty well packed”, contradicting earlier reports predicting low attendances.

Speaking to Reuters, Archbishop Vincent Nichols said that he had been told this week that the Masses at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow and Cofton Park in Birmingham had reached almost their full capacity.

But the archbishop also disclosed that the pastoral cost of the papal visit is likely to exceed £9m. He said that an estimate of £7m to £9m was probably “slightly conservative”.

“It will be in that region,” he said. “Maybe a bit more.”

Archbishop Nichols predicted that Catholics would be able to meet the costs.

“If you think that there [are] five million Catholics in this country, it is about £1.50 each,” he explained.

In another part of the lengthy interview, the archbishop defended the Pope’s criticism of Britain’s equality laws. He said that the Pope’s comments were “about one line long”, and that the Holy Father’s was a “perfectly reasoned voice” which made “a contribution to the debate”.

Archbishop Nichols did not rule out the possibility that the Pope would meet victims of sexual abuse by priests during the visit, but insisted that any such meeting “will not be announced beforehand” and “will take place in private, if that’s going to be the case”.

He added that he was “quite relaxed” about the visit and was looking forward to it “very much”.

He said: “I think we are well prepared, I think most issues have been settled and agreed, and I get increasingly a sense within our society that this is a significant moment.”

Archbishop Nichols said he was not interested in whether the visit enhanced the Church’s status, saying that “the status of the Church in society is not my prime occupation”.

He added: “A very major part of this visit is to illustrate and strengthen the relationships between on the one hand the Holy See, the work of the Catholic Church worldwide and the United Kingdom government.”

The archbishop highlighted areas of cooperation between the Church and the Government, saying that there was “serious cooperation between the government and the Holy See in the provision of primary health care, for example, in the provision of primary education, in the fight against poverty, in the care of the environment”.

He said: “These are major political arenas, policy areas in which the UK government wants to engage more fully with the Catholic Church, and ministers of state are already talking very positively about those things.”

He also discussed diplomatic relations between Rome and London, noting that “the first ambassador appointed by the UK monarch to the Holy See was appointed in 1476. And in fact, the UK embassy to the Holy See is the oldest overseas embassy in the diplomatic history of this country”.

He also contrasted the current Pope and his predecessor, arguing that, while John Paul II was “a great presence on the stage”, Benedict XVI was “a much more gentle and refined person”, who “benefits greatly from the television close-ups because he wants to engage in a dialogue”.

Asked about how planned protests may affect the Pope, Archbishop Nichols said he didn’t think they would affect him deeply because “he is a man who intelligently studies the world, and he knows the ebb and flow of opinion”.

Archbishop Nichols added that during the ad limina visit of the Bishops of England and Wales to the Vatican, he and his fellow bishops were struck by the fact that “many of the people accompanying the pope seem to smile most of the time”, adding that “it is almost as if a certain peacefulness radiates from him”.

“One of my fellow archbishops said here is a man who is at peace with himself, and at peace with his faith, and at peace with his theology”, the archbishop said. “He’s… quietly, deeply rooted and willing to face any challenge or any problem”.