Pope Benedict’s historic arrival in Britain today was overshadowed by comments comparing the nation with a “third world country”.
German-born Cardinal Walter Kasper, 77, who was due to join the Pope’s entourage, pulled out of the trip yesterday following his remarks made during an interview with the German magazine Focus.
Vatican officials reportedly attributed the change of plans to ill health but his withdrawal followed the interview in which he commented on the Godlessness of a section of English society, claiming Britain was facing an “aggressive new atheism” and that “Christians were at a disadvantage”.
Asked about the protests expected to greet the Pope’s visit, he remarked on Britain’s multi-cultural inhabitants, telling the magazine that someone landing at Heathrow may think they were in a “third world country” as there was such a variety of faces there.
The Catholic Church in England and Wales distanced itself from Cardinal Kasper’s comments, saying they were “the personal views of one individual” but the remarks threatened to overshadow the first state visit by a pontiff to Britain.
Pope Benedict will be flown into Scotland today where he will meet the Queen and address thousands of pilgrims at an open air mass before travelling to London.
The four-day trip will include a meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron and a prayer vigil in Hyde Park, culminating in a beatification ceremony for Cardinal John Henry Newman in Birmingham on Sunday.
It is the first papal trip to Britain since Pope John Paul II made a pastoral visit in 1982 following an invitation from the Church.
Pope Benedict will be the guest of the Queen and Government on this occasion, making it the first state visit by a pontiff.
The invitation has been criticised by a number of groups, including gay and women’s rights organisations, and demonstrations are expected.
Pope Benedict XVI, who was elected in 2005, has faced calls to address public concern over the sexual and physical abuse of children by priests.
Last year two reports were published detailing years of mistreatment by priests and nuns in Ireland, prompting an apology from the Vatican.
Victims also came forward in Austria, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and the US.
The packed itinerary begins in Edinburgh with a reception at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official residence in Scotland, where the Pope will also be introduced to First Minister Alex Salmond and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.
Up to 100,000 people are expected to line the streets of the Scottish capital as he is driven through the city centre in the Popemobile to the home of Cardinal Keith O’Brien, leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland.
A state car will later be used to transport the Pope to Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park, where Pope John Paul II addressed thousands 28 years ago.
About 65,000 pilgrims are expected to attend the mass, which will be preceded by a musical performance from Britain’s Got Talent star Susan Boyle.
The Pope will visit London on Friday and Saturday, when he will meet schoolchildren and representatives from different faiths and give an address at Westminster Hall.
He will also meet the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, join evening prayers in Westminster Abbey, visit an elderly people’s residence and host the Hyde Park prayer vigil.
About 55,000 people are expected to attend the Sunday mass and beatification ceremony at Birmingham’s Cofton Park.
The event will bring 19th century clergyman Cardinal Newman one step closer to becoming England’s first non-martyred saint since before the Reformation.
Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols said the country’s Catholics were looking forward to the visit “very much indeed” in spite of a lower than expected turnout amongst Catholics for major events featuring the Pope.
Peter Tatchell of the Protest the Pope campaign said Pope Benedict was “out of step” with the majority of the British public, including many Catholics.