Archbishop Vincent Nichols talks about the Papal visit
We interviewed Archbishop Vincent Nichols about the Papal visit in September after he presented the new booklet promoting the visit. During the interview he explains why he is pleased it is a state visit, what is exciting about it and why he is emphasising Cardinal John Henry Newman’s role as a parish priest. He also invites Catholics in England and Wales to put their support behind the Pope during the visit by praying, coming out to the events and giving financial and spiritual support.
Here is the exclusive interview:
What would you say to a Catholic who said: “I have paid twice for the visit, through the tax system and the national collection”. Why will I not get so see the Pope in person? What do you recommend that person do?
The project of the Pope in coming to Britain at the invitation of the Queen is to address our society and obviously to beatify Cardinal Newman of whom he is very fond. This mean visit works on all sorts of different levels. It works on the level of a state visit and normally heads of state aren’t seen by that many people in the country. But this is different because this state visit touches over four days and involves the Pope moving over major cities in his Popemobile in a way that many people will be able to go and express their support for the Pope and see him.
From a Catholic view, I think what is most important is that we understand the delicacy of the mission the Pope has taken on in coming to address British society with the gift of Christian faith. Because we are very aware of the delicacy of the moment of strong voices raised in opposition for any role for religious faith in our society and here is the Pope who is such an eloquent exponent of the gift of faith coming right into the midst of this multi-faith, multicultural, complex, at times aggressively secular, society.
So Catholics, really, I invite them to get behind the Pope and support him. There are many ways of doing this, with prayer, through the financial contributions that have already been made and of course if its possible to get to see the Pope personally in some of the big events.
But it’s the spirit of the thing that I think is most important and I would hope that every Catholic would rejoice in the fact that her majesty the queen and the Government have invited the Pope and rejoice in the fact that he is here, Our Father in faith, our father in God and we will support him whole heartedly and not with any way begrudgingly.
If it were up to you would you prefer this to be a pastoral visit?
I think the historic nature of the Pope visiting this country as a state visit is quite astonishing. It’s obviously the first time in history at the opening of the visit to see the Queen and the Pope together. The Queen is the first person to welcome him to this country. I hope that many of our easy assumptions will be a little bit shaken, that somehow there is an intense antagonism to Catholicism in this country.
That is not what the picture will show. The picture will show a monarch who is held in huge esteem by everybody making sure that this Pope, the Bishop of Rome is warmly welcomed into this society. I think that is so important that nobody should underestimate it.
What was your reaction when the papal visit was discussed during the leaders’ debates?
They were very particular political moments and it seemed to me that none of the leaders expected it. The way the question was framed was from a particular point of view, a bit of antagonistic point of view, and I was glad that each of the three leaders said, yes, they welcomed the visit of the Pope. Since then the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have made it very clear, the warmth of that welcome.
And in appointing Lord Patten to be his personal representative the Prime Minister has made it perfectly clear that the Government fully supports this visit and is in fact looking forward to it. He describes it as a tremendously exciting.
Why are you emphasising Newman’s role as a parish priest and not so much his theology of conscience or his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism?
Well, Cardinal Newman is a rich and quite complex character. I think he is well known in some circles as an academic. He is known in some circles as a poet and a man of culture. But there is a strand of pastoral care that runs consistenly through his life and it started when he was a young tutor in Oxford and he saw the purpose of education was to care for the whole person and not simply be the acquisition of knowledge. And that underlying gold thread of pastoral care is, I think, not often enough focused upon.
Certainly his years as a parish priest in Birmingham and the reputation he enjoyed and built up among Catholics and others in Birmingham was the reason why 20,000 people or more lined the streets of Birmingham when his body was taken from the Oratory in Birmingham to Rednall where he was buried. Most of those people might not have read a letter of Cardinal Newman’s, nor a book, though they may have heard some of his sermon but they came out onto the streets because they recognised a parish priest who was committed to them who visited them in their homes, who brought them food if they were hungry, coal if they were cold, who pleaded with their employers on their behalf, who did the things that a parish priest does.
And considering that we are just ending the Year for Priests I think it’s a remarkable grace that it is an English parish priest should be beatified by Pope Benedict XVI and I wouldn’t want that dimension of Newman to be forgotten or overlooked.
What’s your nightmare/dream scenario for the visit? What’s the worst and what’s the best you imagine happening?
Well what I remember from 1982 of course were that the days of the visit of John Paul II were marked by wonderful sunshine and I would hope for the same. If we can have an Indian summer over that weekend I think that would make a lot of difference to the hundreds of thousands of people who will come out to see the Pope.
What I really hope for too, is that the gentleness and the readiness to engage in dialogue that is so characteristic of Pope Benedict will come across.
And in this I think television coverage will help a great deal because here is a man who is most impressive when you sit down and talk to him face to face. One of the great advantages of television is that it brings the face close to us and I think with that help, People will see the utter integrity of this man who is at peace in his faith, not afraid of difficult questions, not afraid of difficult challenges and will engage with us in a way that I think will be a significant contribution to our shared life.
Do you expect some sort of an outbreak of abuse stories or negative stories about the Church shortly before the Pope’s arrival?
When preparations were in hand for the World Youth Day in Sydney, I am told that for 10 days before Pope Benedict arrived in Sydney there was a constant stream of negative stories about the Catholic Church. But they stopped and changed on the day he arrived. I don’t think that will happen here. I think that those who are critical of the Church for whatever reason will continue to be critical and I quite understand that. But I think that most people will recognise its importance and begin to see it in its proper dimensions and will begin to put in their proper context the terrible things that have been quite properly publicly criticised about the life and behaviour of some priests and bishops in the Church. I think it’s time now for us to look at the bigger picture and I think people will be ready to do that.
Would you encourage Catholics to come out and catch a sight of the Pope on the route?
Well, yes. But I think there will be plenty of opportunities in the major cities for people to wave and greet the Pope on one of his journeys on one his journeys through the cities and I’m very pleased that city authorities are being extremely cooperative and being in fact not at all reluctant to foresee very large numbers of people who want to come out into the streets to see the Pope.