Return of the governor
Papal visit to BritainCatherine Pepinster
- 12 June 2010
Leading Catholic Lord Patten has been summoned by Prime Minister David Cameron to sort out the problems besetting the first state visit to Britain by a Pope, not least the gap between escalating costs and the money being raised. Can he fix it in time?
The clock is ticking. It is now just over 12 weeks until Pope Benedict lands at Edinburgh Airport for the start of his visit to Britain and the beatification of Cardinal Newman. But in the past week, instead of a burgeoning sense of excitement about the trip to England and Scotland, anxiety surrounding the visit has grown.
The highlight of the trip – the beatification of Cardinal Newman, first planned to be held at Coventry Airport – is now being hastily reconsidered. It looks increasingly likely that it will be scaled down and replaced by a much smaller event where fewer Catholics would be able to participate and see the Pope. This week, Mgr Andrew Summersgill, who is organising the visit for the bishops of England and Wales, said that the exact itinerary has yet to be organised; that a great deal of work still needs to be done on security; and that some Catholics may have to settle for a glimpse of the Pope from a roadside.
One of the key causes of anxiety is the state of fund-raising by the Catholic Church in England and Wales to pay its share of the costs of the visit. With just half the initial £7 million target of the Church’s contribution raised so far – and financial experts estimating that this would have had to have been up to £10m, had early ambitions for the visit been realised – it’s clear why there are concerns.
This is not the first time that the visit – partly a state visit, partly a pastoral one – has suffered setbacks. Earlier this year, a Foreign Office memo was leaked to widespread derision when it revealed that junior and middle- ranking officials had dreamt up a range of events for the Pope including launching his own-brand condoms. Then there was the change of government in May, which led to a hiatus in planning.
A far graver blow was the indisposition of the papal nuncio, felled by a serious stroke. It remains unclear whether he will be well enough to embark upon his task of writing the Pope’s speeches, or even if he will be able to return home to host the Pope at the nunciature in Wimbledon in September.
The nuncio is a key player in a visit that is highly complex due to its dual nature. Its combined purpose means that the Church has to work with the Government and Buckingham Palace as well as the Vatican, and the aims, roles and responsibilities of all four have to be knitted together to make a coherent whole.
Could the person to do that be Lord Patten? This week he was appointed as the Prime Minister’s personal representative to oversee the coordination of the elements of the visit for which the Government is responsible – elements that include security for the Pope, policing and the major state events, including Pope Benedict’s meeting with the Queen, his encounters with the Government, with previous prime ministers, and his address to parliamentarians at Westminster Hall.
The appointment of Patten makes sense, given his experience of overseeing complicated events that were by no means guaranteed to have the successful outcomes he enjoyed. As chairman of the Conservative Party, he helped John Major to an unexpected election triumph in 1992 (although lost his own seat in the process), and then as Governor of Hong Kong oversaw the successful handover of the former British colony to the Chinese Government, despite Chinese hostility to him (they curiously nicknamed him “The Triple Violator”).
He’s also a Catholic, and has Catholic connections to both the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, and the Permanent Secretary at the Department of the Environment, Dame Helen Ghosh, who is chairing the Whitehall committee responsible for the papal visit. All three sit together on the Tablet Trust, the owner of this publication.
While it is Lord Patten’s job to deliver the Government side of things – and he was astute enough to only take on the role of “papal visit tsar” if his power and influence derived from having a direct reporting line to Prime Minister David Cameron – it is not his remit to knock heads together in the Catholic Church. But Patten’s mix of political frankness and diplomatic savvy – the iron fist in a velvet glove – may well produce results. If he sees there are problems, he is unlikely to stay entirely silent. As one Foreign Office official said: “All the sides involved want to deliver on this visit. But if one side is failing to do so, it will mean failure for everyone.”
Patten will certainly make his presence felt in Whitehall. As he put it on Tuesday when he talked to The Tablet following his appointment: “We’ve only 73 [working] days left and need as much as possible nailed down by the early part of next month. I want to assure the bishops that the Government wants this visit to be an outstanding success.”
Lord Patten’s confirmation that the coalition Government is as enthused about the first state visit by a Pope to this country as its Labour predecessors is an endorsement of the Holy See’s influence on the world stage. It will be keen, like Labour was, to see reference in the papal speeches to foreign-policy issues such as achievement of the Millennium Development Goals and climate change. But David Cameron’s Government would now like to see more domestic ones raised too.
“There will be some additions,” said Lord Patten. “Education is going to play a part as will what the Government has said about the Big Society and its connections with Catholic Social Teaching themes such as solidarity and subsidiarity.” And there will be another addition too: “The role of the family. I am absolutely sure of that.”
“Nobody expects a total meeting of minds,” said Lord Patten. “But the Government is well aware of the global reach of the Church, and that it is a mover of opinion, a shaper of policy and deliverer of programmes.”
So the new Government’s backing is assured. That has also been reinforced, The Tablet understands, by a conversation between the Prime Minister and Archbishop Vincent Nichols at the weekend. Yet the problems do remain. Chief among them is money and the extent to which visit planners underestimated costs and overestimated what might be raised.
The Foreign Office originally calculated that Pope Benedict’s four-day trip to Scotland and England beginning on 16 September would cost about £15m excluding the cost of policing. The Church pledged to raise approximately £7m with the taxpayer meeting the rest. As for the security costs, the former Secretary of State for Scotland, Jim Murphy (appointed by the Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, to organise the Government side of the visit), said these would be met out of existing Government budgets.
Thus far, the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has received a total of £1.4m towards the visit from the insurance company, National Catholic Mutual, and other diocesan insurers. A further £1m has been pledged by individual benefactors and at least another £1m is expected from the Pentecost Sunday national collection. Wealthy benefactors who attended an Archbishop’s House reception earlier in the year were told that the original plan for the Newman beatification would cost £1.3m and a Hyde Park prayer vigil £1.5m.
As The Tablet went to press this week, it did look likely that the beatification was being scaled back and would go ahead at Longbridge in the West Midlands, not Coventry Airport, with half the original number of pilgrims. That will alarm both the Oratorian Fathers and Rome. Fr Richard Duffield, Provost of the Birmingham Oratory, which Newman founded, told The Tablet that the Pope wants to beatify Newman in a large venue “because he wants as many as possible of Newman’s fellow countrymen to be able to be present”.
In a recent interview, Mgr Summersgill cautioned Catholics not to be too optimistic about their chances of attending the pastoral gatherings. He has suggested some could see the Pope from the roadside while he hoped that huge numbers would participate “virtually” with the live coverage on television and online. This kind of attitude does not go down well in Rome, with one Vatican source saying: “That will be seen as provincialism. The Pope travels to be seen by as many people as possible, not to be watched on TV. If that were the aim, he might as well stay in Rome.”
Then there is the issue of conviction. If there are problems raising money, has the Church “sold” the visit to the faithful? In many parishes, the national collection that was held on Pentecost Sunday went ahead without the planned gift-aid envelopes, prayer cards and posters being distributed on time. The visit wasn’t explained to churchgoers, even though 330,000 Q-and-A leaflets are being printed. But they won’t be distributed until late June, weeks after the collection.
While a visit like this requires all kind of logistical planning, it’s not the first time this country has coped with an unusual major event attracting millions of people. After all, while the papal visit to England and Scotland has been known about for nearly a year, in 1997, Britain managed to organise Princess Diana’s funeral in just a week.
But since then there has been a substantial increase in health-and-safety legislation, which has increased regulations concerning crowd control, safety and numbers. Another change has been the increase in terrorist threats, following 9/11. The police have not only stipulated that all those who attend will have to be members of organised groups, but a security cordon now has to be thrown around a venue for a major event such as this.
In Whitehall, Dame Helen Ghosh has now appointed Susan Scholefield, director general in the Ministry of Defence’s civil contingency secretariat, to oversee logistics. She will bring together local authorities and regional command structures and improve liaison with the police. But with such a short time frame left to finalise details, the Coventry Airport site is seen as too problematic for security.
At the end of June, the Vatican delegation concerned with the papal visit to Britain will return here to assess progress and to talk about the arrangements. Some developments will no doubt gratify them: the appointment of Lord Patten and of Susan Scholefield; Buckingham Palace’s commitment to the visit, with the Holyroodhouse (sic) reception for the Pope, hosted by the Queen, expanded from 250 to 1,000 guests. It now looks likely that Prince Philip will greet the Pope on his arrival at Edinburgh Airport. Indeed, the Scottish end of the visit could well become the high point, with the preparations for an open-air Mass at Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, well advanced.
“The papal visit to Scotland is on schedule, on budget and is shaping up to be a really fabulous occasion. The use of Bellahouston Park was agreed with Glasgow City Council months ago and all that remains now is to finalise the exact capacity and distribute invitations, something we’‘ll be doing very, very soon,” said David Kerr, communications officer for the papal visit to Scotland.
Both Lord Patten and the Catholic bishops of England and Wales and Scotland will be keen to reassure the Vatican delegation when it arrives in a few weeks’ time that the visit is on track. The delegation will be focusing far more closely now on the trip to Britain, given that Pope Benedict’s trip to Cyprus is out of the way.
Given that a small place such as Cyprus and developing nations such as Angola and Cameroon have successfully hosted papal visits, how difficult can it be for a first world country such as Britain?