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Pope Benedict will see a different UK to John Paul II

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 14 September 2010

As the leader of Catholics in England and Wales insists Pope Benedict XVI will receive "profound loyalty" on his visit to the UK - Catholic commentator Michael Walsh writes for Channel 4 News on how he will visit a very different Britain to that seen by his predecessor Pope John Paul II.

Pope John Paul II meets Pilgrims in south London during his visit to the UK in 1982 - but will benedict XVI's visit be judged as successful? (Credit: Getty)

It was the last week of May and the first couple of days of June 1982 when Pope John Paul II came to Britain.

The conflict in the South Atlantic was drawing to its close but it was problematic for a Pope to come to a country at war, and it took all the diplomatic skills of Cardinal Basil Hume of Westminster and Archbishop Derek Worlock of Liverpool to persuade him.

There was therefore a great sense of relief in the Catholic community, as well as delight at the first visit of a Pope – as Pope – to these islands. The weather helped. It was, for the most part, remarkably sunny. Even the Pope was surprised, indicating as much from the loggia of Westminster cathedral the morning of his arrival.

It was a great success: even the Vatican thought so. There were few protests, just a handful of ultra Protestants, Dr Ian Paisley to the fore.

At Canterbury, as well as other religious leaders the Pope met Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and together they relaunched talks between the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. Hopes were high for ecumenical progress. They were soon dashed.

After the 1992 decision of the Church of England to ordain women to the priesthood they effectively came to a close.

John Paul's successor, Benedict XVI, will visit Lambeth Palace to greet the Archbishop of Canterbury, and there will be an ecumenical service in Westminster Abbey, but relations are tense. And not just about the ordination of women.

Rome's decision to set up a special "ordinariat" to receive Anglican clergy who wished to convert was made with little or no consultation with English Catholic bishops, and Dr Rowan Williams seems to have been taken almost completely by surprise.

Dr Williams and Benedict are professional theologians, and are said to get along well enough at a personal level.

But Benedict is not an easy man to like, lacking the charisma of his predecessor. He is, moreover, already well known, and by many disliked, from his years as the Church's doctrinal overseer, whereas John Paul had emerged suddenly from a country long under Communist rule.

Unlike that of Benedict, John Paul's innate conservatism was unnoticed by all except professional Vatican-watchers, but both share many of the same antipathies though Benedict has possibly been more outspoken about homosexuality and the role of women in the Church.

Nor has he budged from traditional teaching on contraception and abortion. The latter issues are not as high on his agenda as they were on John Paul's, but it is these, together with homosexuality and the role of women, which will give rise to protests far more vociferous than were ever heard in 1982.

On the face of it the biggest difference between the two visits is that the first was entirely pastoral, Benedict's has some elements of a state occasion. But the differences will be marginal.

There will be a state banquet, but the Pope will not be there. Popes don't do banquets, a Vatican spokesman rather prissily remarked.

But as an official guest he will be granted, as John Paul was not, the opportunity to address politicos and others in Westminster Hall. It will be on what he has to say there that the success of this visit will be judged.

Michael Walsh is an author and Catholic affairs commentator. His new book The Cardinals, is an insight into the mysterious and secretive world of the Vatican. More details can be found here.

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