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Pope Benedict To Encounter Hostile Audience In U.K. Visit

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By Francis X. Rocca
Religion News Service

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Benedict XVI travels to the United Kingdom next week (Sept. 16-19) for only the second papal visit to Britain in modern times, and like Pope John Paul II in 1982, Benedict will confront 400 years of Catholic-Protestant tensions as well as more recent controversies.

The four-day visit will feature a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II, an address to parliamentarians and other dignitaries in Westminster Palace, an ecumenical service with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and honors for a 19th-century theologian who famously converted to Catholicism.

In many ways, the visit presents Benedict with one of the most hostile audiences he's encountered in his five years as pope.

Benedict faces allegations that he and other church leaders mishandled cases of Catholic priests who sexually abused children in Europe and the United States. While he is expected to meet with sex abuse victims at some point during his visit--as he has done on three previous international trips--the gesture seems unlikely to placate his most adamant critics.

A book accusing the pope of human rights abuses for his record on pedophile priests hit shelves on Wednesday (Sept. 8). The author, lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, had already called for Benedict's arrest upon his arrival on British soil. Two British television networks are scheduled to air documentaries critical of Benedict in the days leading up to his arrival.

Scotland's Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who will welcome Benedict when he arrives in Edinburgh on Thursday (Sept. 16), recently voiced bitterness over press coverage when he accused the government-funded British Broadcasting Company of attempting to "humiliate" Benedict.

With a population that is less than 9 percent Catholic and an increasingly secularist public life, Britain is markedly less welcoming terrain for Benedict than was the United States in 2008.

According to pollsters, 76 percent of Britons oppose the use of tax money to subsidize his trip; unlike John Paul's trip, Benedict's will be a state visit made at the invitation of the queen.

A coalition of secularists has organized a Protest the Pope march for Saturday (Sept. 18) in London. And as of Monday (Sept. 8), only three-quarters of the 100,000 passes had been sold for a Sept. 16 open-air Mass in Glasgow that will feature singer Susan Boyle.

Nevertheless, organizers are expecting enough interest to justify an extensive route for Benedict's "popemobile" ride through London on Sept. 18, prior to a prayer vigil in Hyde Park.

A meeting with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, followed by an ecumenical service at Westminster Abbey on Sept. 17, will be the latest gestures toward restored unity between the Catholic and Anglican churches, which separated in the 16th century.

Relations between the churches have been strained since the Vatican announced plans last year to welcome Anglican converts, allowing them to retain a collective identity by retaining many traditional prayers and hymns in specially designed Catholic dioceses.

Benedict's visit will culminate with an outdoor Mass on Sept. 19 in Birmingham, where he will beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman and place the 19th-century English theologian one step away from sainthood. It will be the first beatification ceremony presided over by Benedict.

"It is my hope and prayer that more and more people will benefit from (Newman's) gentle wisdom and be inspired by his example of integrity and holiness of life," Benedict said Wednesday (Sept. 8) in special message to Britons.

But the pope is likely to tread lightly on one notable aspect of Newman's biography: his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism. Officials of both churches have been presenting the celebration as an opportunity for harmony, with Anglicans stressing their shared admiration for Newman, and Catholics noting that he never called for others to follow him in an exodus to Rome.

"Newman never repudiated the writings he produced as an Anglican," said the Very Rev. David Richardson, the Archbishop of Canterbury's personal representative to the Vatican. "He clearly acknowledged his debt to the church that formed him.

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