Pope set to feel the chill wind of Cool Britannia

THE Falklands war was in full swing and John Paul II was in London as the first pope ever to set foot on English soil.

Even as he snubbed Margaret Thatcher and prayed for peace in implicit criticism of Britain – whose troops were battling Catholic Argentines – the pontiff received a rapturous welcome and was described in glowing terms by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, can expect a far cooler – if not at times downright hostile – reception in his state visit this week.

It all underscores the contrasting public fortunes of the two leaders of the church. Pope John Paul was an international superstar who could send a thrill even through non-Catholics and made many people forget how at odds he was with their personal views.

Pope Benedict seems to step into crisis and controversy at every turn when he ventures abroad on bridge-building missions.

In 1982, Robert Runcie, then Archbishop of Canterbury, said John Paul came to Britain “with the grace of a pilgrim and a prophet.” Runcie’s successor, Rowan Williams, told the BBC in April that Benedict would be welcomed “as a valued partner, and that’s about it.”

Pope Benedict’s visit has been fraught with controversy ever since it was announced by Buckingham Palace in May.

There have been complaints over the costs to British taxpayers for the September 16-19 trip, anger and revulsion over the church’s clerical sex abuse crisis, and a feeling of betrayal among Anglicans upset over the Vatican’s efforts to woo conservative members of their church.

Although the Polish-born Pope John Paul held virtually the same views on church doctrine as Pope Benedict, he was at the height of his popularity at the time, celebrated for standing up to communism during the Cold War. His charisma helped him make strong connections with people who did not share his faith or conservative social views.

Problems of paedophile priests were already brewing but kept from public knowledge, only coming out when the abuse scandal exploded toward the end of his papacy.

Top British politicians say they welcome Pope Benedict’s visit, but seem compelled to state their differences with him.

During a televised debate in April before the general election, David Cameron, now prime minister, said he wanted the visit to be a success but “do I agree with everything the pope says? No.”

“I don’t agree with him about contraception. I don’t agree with him about homosexuality and I think the Catholic Church has got some very, very serious work to do to unearth and come to term with some of the appalling things that have happened and they need to do that but I do think we should respect people of faith,” Mr Cameron said.

Pope Benedict will meet with Queen Elizabeth in Scotland shortly after arriving and with Cameron in London on Saturday.

Pope John Paul’s visit was two years in the planning, but only confirmed days before departure because of complaints from Argentina, which was at war with Britain after invading the Falkland islands, which it claims are its own and refers to as Las Malvinas.

The pope agreed to visit Argentina shortly after returning from England, where he prayed for peace during every public event.

“We cannot forget that an armed conflict is taking place – brothers in Christ fighting in a war that imperils peace in the world,” he said during one Mass.

Pope John Paul also dropped plans to meet with prime minister Margaret Thatcher; the official reason was to stress it was a pastoral, not a state visit.

But he did meet with Queen Elizabeth, whose ancestor, Henry VIII, established the Church of England after breaking with Rome in 1534 over the Vatican’s refusal to annul his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

Pope John Paul said he felt “deeply moved” to be the first pope on English soil in what was described as a pilgrimage of reconciliation to a country that officially discriminated against Catholics until the 1820s.

Catholics, less than 10% of the population, still face a problem marrying into the royal family. They can marry in, but the royal loses his or her place in the succession.

There were scattered demonstrations during Pope John Paul’s visit, mainly by small groups calling the pope the anti-christ and by followers of Ian Paisley.

In contrast, for this papal visit, a group called Protest the Pope has lined up gay, feminist and secular groups to stage protests against the visit – and there has even been talk of serving the pope with an arrest warrant because of the abuse scandal.

Although Pope Benedict has not been accused of any crime, some British lawyers have questioned whether the pope should have immunity as a head of state and whether he could be prosecuted under the principle of universal jurisdiction for an alleged systematic cover-up of sexual abuses by priests.

The German-born Pope Benedict has never sought to be a crowd pleaser like his predecessor, having assumed the papacy after two decades in the back rooms of power as the Vatican’s ideological chief. At 83, he is 20 years older than Pope John Paul when he made his British pilgrimage and drew an estimated two million people to his events.

Pope Benedict, who speaks good English among other European languages, seems more comfortable among small groups.

Monsignor Mark Langham, the British-born Vatican official in charge of relations with Anglicans, recalled the excitement of Pope John Paul’s visit as he spoke to at the English College seminary in Rome’s historic centre. Forty-four of its former students were martyred in England in past centuries.

“The Falklands war was going on, the forthcoming marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana had just been announced, the pope was coming. We felt we were living through history. The enthusiasm, the excitement was something you could feel.”

He acknowledged that the atmosphere over Pope Benedict’s trip will not be the same.

“I think it will be one perhaps where people came to see Pope John Paul, they’ll come to hear Pope Benedict,” Langham said.


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