Cardinal Newman, from a painting by John Everett Millais

September sees the first ever state visit of a Pope to Britain.  Yes, I know the previous Pope visited, but that was a ‘private’ visit – the visit of a spiritual leader to his church.  But on this occasion, Benedict XVI was invited by Queen Elizabeth and comes in his capacity as head of state of the Vatican.

He arrives in Edinburgh on 16th September, where there will be an official reception for him in the grounds of Holyrood House, hosted by the Queen.  The Pope will later hold an open-air mass in Glasgow before flying to London, where he will meet the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and will celebrate evening prayer in Westminster Abbey before holding a vigil in Hyde Park.

Arguably the most significant event of the visit will be an open-air mass in Birmingham where Cardinal John Henry Newman will be beatified.  The prominent 19th century Anglican priest joined the Roman Catholic church in 1847 and became a leading figure in the Oratory movement, founding the English-speaking world’s first oratory in Birmingham. Cardinal Newman became eligible to be beatified (which means he will be referred to as ‘the blessed’ Cardinal Newman) following the Vatican’s confirmation earlier this year that the inexplicable recovery of a Massachusetts man from a spinal disorder was attributable to the intercessory intervention of Newman.  A further miracle, which is already under investigation, will need to be confirmed before the Cardinal can be recognised as a Saint.

Cardinal Newman’s beatification is not without controversy, since for many years there have been suggestions that he was gay.  Although there is no direct evidence of this, it is true that he shared a home with a male companion for many years, and the two were buried in the same grave.  An attempted excavation of Newman’s remains in 2008, to move them to the Oratory in direct contravention of his instructions, was condemned as ‘moral vandalism’ by gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who suggested that the church was attempting to hide embarrassing evidence.

The Pope’s visit also takes place against a background of muddle and overspend which has been an embarrassment to the team organising the visit, and the high cost of security, which falls to the UK government as this is a state visit.  Moreover, there continue to be ongoing rumbles of concern that, while still a cardinal, the Pope was involved in (or at least complicit in) the cover-up of cases of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests.  Whether this is true is not certain, but what appears clear is that the Pope is personally greatly pained by these accusations.  There is no indication yet that the Pope will have any contact with victims, or make any statement of apology or regret.

It is to be hoped that his visit will bring great encouragement to the many millions of Roman Catholics in Britain, and will lead to effective dialogue with the protestant churches.

More details can be found at the visit’s website http://www.thepapalvisit.org.uk/