Pope Benedict seeks to offer cautious message in Edinburgh

By staff writers
September 16, 2010

Some 125,000 people lined the streets of Edinburgh to catch a glimpse of Pope Benedict XVI, leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, on his first UK visit today.

Hundreds of school pupils from 14 Catholic, Episcopalian and community schools took part in a St Ninian's Day parade down Princes Street to welcome the pontiff.

The Pope made his way along the Scottish capital's thoroughfare in his well-armoured 'Popemobile', after meeting the Queen at Holyroodhouse.

In his opening messages, the pontiff affirmed Britain as "a force for good" and "a modern and multicultural society". He also stressed the significance of the country's "Christian heritage" and warned against "aggressive forms of secularism" - in a formula evidently designed to distinguish secularity per se from some of its more ideologically entrenched proponents.

The Pope spoke of "your forefathers' respect for truth and justice, for mercy and charity", linking these to Christian values but also stressing that they were for the benefit of "Christians and non-Christians alike."

The Anglican Archbishop of Wales, Barry Morgan, who was among those who met Benedict when he arrived in Edinburgh this morning, commented: "He was quite anxious to mend fences, I thought."

However, the fence-mending was ruptured by the Pope's equation of atheism with Nazism (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/13123), which has drawn criticism from a wide range of people, including historians.

In answers to pre-approved questions from journalists on the way to Scotland, the Pope said the “revelations” of a child-abuse scandal among priests in a dozen countries were “a shock to me, a great sadness.”

He said the first priority was the victims: “What can we do to help them to overcome the trauma, to re-find their lives?”

Victims and families of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and religious quietly lined part of Princes Street, bearing photographs of their loved ones.

But US-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said that Vatican action on ridding the church of abusive priests or turning them over to law enforcement has been "virtually insignificant."

"It's disingenuous to say church officials have been slow and insufficiently vigilant in dealing with clergy sex crimes and cover-ups," SNAP's Joelle Casteix said in a statement. "On the contrary, they've been prompt and vigilant, but in concealing, not preventing, these horrors."

The crowds greeting the Pope in Scotland have been warm and significant in number, but recent opinion polls indicate that a majority of the population have limited interest in the visit, and a Times newspaper survey gave him only a 14 per cent approval rating.

Similarly, outright opponents amount to only around 10 per cent of the population.

Around 150 secularist and humanist opponents of the state visit made their voices heard today, jeering, booing and shouting slogans as the Popemobile went by on the Lothian Road. They waved signs reading “Condoms save lives” and “Papal Bull”.

Police moved protesters into a fenced-off zone. A spokesperson for the Lothian and Borders Police said this afternoon: “The crowds are now starting to disperse with no arrests having being made.”

Around 60 hardline Protestants and supporters of the Rev Ian Paisley also objected to the visit.

In a recent BBC poll of Britain's Catholics, estimated at 5-9 per cent of the population, 70 per cent say Benedict's visit will help the Catholic Church. However, half also say their faith has been shaken by the child abuse scandals. Two-thirds said women should have more status and authority in the Catholic Church.

Initial estimates for numbers gathering for the first papal Mass of the religious component of the visit, in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, are that almost 80,000 have come for the occasion - including Catholics from the US, South-east Asia and Africa.

This is more than some sceptics had predicted, but fewer than the 100,000 the park could hold, and much smaller than the 240,000 who turned out for Pope John Paul II in 1982 - giving some indication of the overall decline of Catholicism in Scotland in the intervening 28 years.

There has been no quelling the enthusiasm of the Bellahouston crowds, however.

The beginning of the visit was overshadowed by controversy relating to comments made by Cardinal Walter Kasper, former head of the Vatican's interreligious work, in the German magazine Focus yesterday.

He likened landing in Britain as like arriving in "a Third World country". This was interpreted as an insult, though the Cardinal's spokespeople say that it was intended as a reference to the multicultural nature of society.

Cardinal Kasper, a moderately reforming voice within the Catholic Church, was due to accompany Benedict XVI on this visit, but was withdrawn on grounds of ill-health, rather than because of the publicity over his interview, which also warned about secularism, the Vatican has been quick to point out.

The papal visit is being streamed live from the official UK visit website: http://www.thepapalvisit.org.uk/

Additional reporting by Simon Barrow in Edinburgh


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