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Red tape and scandal shadow Newman liturgy

by
15 September 2010

Vincent McKee gauges the mood in the Midlands as the Pope arrives

What could be described as the prim­­ary purpose of Pope Benedict’s visit — the beatification of John Henry Newman on Sunday at Cofton Park, Birmingham — is proving to be the main attraction for the Roman Catholic faithful of the Midlands.

Despite the historic ceremony, the first such on British soil, there appears to be little else animating people in the area about the visit. For all his record as a theologian, doctrinal disciplinarian, and bishop, Pope Benedict remains uncomfort­ably connected in the public mind with a dark era of clerical abuse and wooden responses from the hierarchy.

Hopes that he will inspire an expected crowd of 80,000 with a lively eulogy on Newman — for whom he holds a lifetime’s ad­mir­ation — are being arduously pro­moted by priests, who are worried by the prospect of a humiliating flop.

There are three main problems. First is the resentment among many in Birmingham and Coventry at what they see as the clumsy Foreign Office bureaucratisation of the event. Security, pilgrim regulation, press accreditation, and stewarding have added layers of red tape, as well as a cost of £25 per head.

It was all very different in May 1982, when the late Pope John Paul II’s visit to Coventry Airport was managed masterfully by Mgr Tom Gavin. Back then, 350,000 gathered on a bright Pentecost Sunday. Equally important was a sense that the trip was being handled by Mid­lands clergy, without intervention from London.

Second, there is lingering unease over the spate of local clerical sex-abuse cases, aggravated by the Church’s delays in addressing vic­tims and dealing with the offending priests. Coventry was affected particularly badly by crimes against altar boys by three priests over recent decades.

While Archbishop Vincent Nichols is praised across the board for having undertaken a thorough reform of the archdiocese during his nine years at Birmingham, at the same time the Church’s moral authority has been badly shaken among the ordinary faithful.

While Archbishop Vincent Nichols is praised across the board for having undertaken a thorough reform of the archdiocese during his nine years at Birmingham, at the same time the Church’s moral authority has been badly shaken among the ordinary faithful.

Third, Benedict’s own cerebral, Bavarian style, lacking the charisma of his Polish predecessor, has added to the general climate of indifference. He seems to lack the ability to project his message to audiences much beyond the Ca­tholic pews. His perceived doctrinal intransigence adds further to the stilted image.

Despite these difficulties, how­ever, both RC and Anglican clerics in the West Midlands show a strong desire for a successful outcome to the visit. Predictably, perhaps, it is seen as an opportunity by many, such as the youthful Fr Tim Menezes, parish priest of St Thomas More’s, Coventry. For him, this will be a chance “for the Holy Father to address a message of love, sanctity and repentance to the wider world”.

At the other end of the age scale, the vibrant 95-year-old Mgr Louis McRaye of Our Lady of the Way­side, Solihull, feels that “the intellectual gifts and spiritual integrity of Pope Benedict, not to mention his life-long interest, make him an eminently suitable person for presiding over the beatification of Cardinal Newman.” He also argues that the Pope has “the welcome quality of preaching to, not being led by, the secular world”.

Many Anglican clerics agree about the potential for a popular Christian revival to emerge from an inspiring performance by the Pope. Canon Jim Canning, Vicar of St Paul’s, Coventry, says he “positively welcomes Pope Benedict in the spirit of Christian brotherliness”. He hopes that the visit will re-awaken “awareness of the missionary legacy of both the RC and Episcopalian traditions of this country, from which good things may yet follow”.

Many Anglican clerics agree about the potential for a popular Christian revival to emerge from an inspiring performance by the Pope. Canon Jim Canning, Vicar of St Paul’s, Coventry, says he “positively welcomes Pope Benedict in the spirit of Christian brotherliness”. He hopes that the visit will re-awaken “awareness of the missionary legacy of both the RC and Episcopalian traditions of this country, from which good things may yet follow”.

A prominent Anglican layman, Charles Coleman, from St John the Baptist, Coventry, comments: “I am looking to Pope Benedict for a message of hope to counter the dark forces of materialism and amoral relativism that have been imposed by militant humanists on our society. I honestly pray that the Holy Father can inspire Christians of all faiths to battle with atheist culture.”

Against this low-key setting, high hopes are resting on the success of a papal pilgrimage that could still set the tone of things for decades.

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Paul Vallely

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Paul Vallely

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