VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict this week makes a challenging trip to Britain -- only the second by a pope in history -- and his welcome in one of Europe’s most secular nations will range from polite to indifferent and even hostile.
Coming on the heels of a simmering scandal of sexual abuse of children by priests in several European countries, strained relations with the Anglicans, and discontent over the taxpayer footing part of the bill, he will have his work cut out for him.
Benedict’s four-day visit starting on Thursday has been fraught with controversy and the reception will be a shadow of the rapturous one given to the charismatic John Paul in 1982.
“There have always been protests on trips but this time the contestation seems wider,” said the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi. “This is part of the climate in a country like England which is pluralistic and outspoken.”
Vatican organizers realize that Benedict, who is making the trip as a head of state at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth, is visiting a place where history has practically embedded suspicion of the papacy in the national psyche.
Benedict is only the second pope to visit since King Henry VIII broke established the Church of England in 1534 over the Vatican’s refusal to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
Roman Catholics did not regain the right to vote until 1829 and members of Britain’s royal family who marry a Catholic still have to give up their right to the throne.
As Benedict visits Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland and London and Birmingham in England, there likely will be little sense of history as there was 28 years ago.
Although he holds the same conservative views on moral issues as his predecessor, Benedict, a reserved man with a professorial style, has none of the star quality that John Paul used masterfully to dazzle even those who disagreed with him.
John Paul was a Pole whose nation, like Britain, had suffered at the hands of the Germans during World War Two. He was an anti-communist hero even to many non-Catholics and, when he visited Britain, was riding a wave of popularity after he was nearly killed in an assassination attempt in 1981.
Benedict, a German, will enjoy no such sympathy factor as he visits a minority flock of some 5.3 million Catholics -- just under nine percent of Britain’s population -- as criticism of the Church and headlines about the sexual abuse scandal have put them under what some feel is an awkward spotlight .
“To stand up publicly and be counted as a Catholic in Britain right now can be to invite a tirade,” Peter Stanford, a former editor of the Catholic Herald, wrote in The Observer.
Benedict has been attacked by militant atheists, some of whom have suggested he should be arrested and held ultimately responsible for the Church’s sexual abuse scandal.
Protests were planned by secularists, gay rights groups, and women ordination advocates during Benedict’s visit. The Catholic Women’s Ordination group paid for large posters on London’s famous red buses reading “Pope Benedict - Ordain Women Now!”
Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols said he did not think the pope would be affected by adverse media and protests.
“I don’t think they will affect him deeply. No, because I think he is a man who intelligently studies the world, and he knows the ebb and flow of opinion,” he told Reuters.
Polls show most Britons opposed the taxpayer paying for half of the trip, which may top 20 million pounds ($30.83 million).
Benedict visits Britain at one of the lowest points in relations between the Anglican and Catholic Churches.
Last year, the pope made it easier for disaffected Anglicans who feel their Church has become too liberal by allowing women priests and homosexual bishops to convert to Catholicism.
The trip’s religious centerpiece is the beatification on Sunday in Birmingham of Cardinal John Henry Newman, one of the most prominent English converts from Anglicanism to Catholicism.
Newman, who lived from 1801 to 1890 and became a Catholic in 1845, was a central figure in the Oxford Movement, which tried to move the Church of England closer to Rome.