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Pope Benedict XVI’s Visit to Britain Is Making History
Beatification of Cardinal Newman a highlight of the events

by Mary Ellen Bork

August 18, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI’s four-day visit to Britain, September 16-19, opens a new chapter in a historically difficult relationship between the Vatican and the British government dating back to the English Reformation under King Henry VIII.

The highlight of the pope’s visit will be the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, who died in 1890. Cardinal Newman was an Englishman, an Anglican and a Catholic, so he is viewed as a bridge figure in English culture, held in high regard by all.

Pope Benedict has chosen Cardinal Newman’s personal motto, Cor ad cor loquitur (heart speaks to heart), as the theme of his visit, as he brings the Gospel and his own witness of faith to Scotland and England during these four days.

There will be many “firsts” on this trip to the British Isles. This is the first state visit by any pope to Britain. (A state visit is the highest honor a country can bestow on a head of state.) Queen Elizabeth and the government extended the invitation, and the pope’s visit will be marked by several state functions and honors beginning in Edinburgh.

On the last day of his visit, September 19, Pope Benedict will perform his first beatification since he became pope in 2005. The ceremony will take place in Birmingham, where Cardinal Newman was a pastor for many years.

Overcoming historic divisions

It may be difficult for American Catholics to grasp the drama involved in this papal visit because they do not know the story of the hostility between Catholics and Anglicans that started almost 450 years ago and is the backdrop for the events surrounding the beatification of Cardinal Newman. This visit, with Pope Benedict meeting face-to face with religious and political leaders on their own home turf, will mark a new stage in the relationship between the Vatican and the Anglican church and other religious groups.

The hope on all sides is that this visit will affirm the contribution of English Catholics to their country and to the Church and open up new avenues of communication. Francis Campbell, British ambassador to the Vatican, says that many English people have “preconceived ideas” about what a pope is — a diplomatic way of referring to more than four centuries of estrangement and hostility of the Anglican Church to the Church of Rome.

He told me in a recent interview that Catholics constitute about 11% of the population, and for them this visit is a joyous affirmation of their membership in the Catholic Church. Catholics will see an attitude of rapprochement on the part of the government, which wants to celebrate with Catholics and overcome some of the divisions of the past, Ambassador Campbell said. There will be a sense of looking at things together in faith instead of the opposition that has marked hundreds of years of English history. The government wants the pope to speak to all people of faith.

Since the sixteenth century Anglicans saw themselves as freed from spiritual bondage to Rome through the Reformation and looked on Catholics with hostility and suspicion, especially about their allegiance to England. If you were a Catholic, how could you be a good Englishman?

It all started with the Tudor King Henry VIII, who broke with the Church in 1534 when the pope would not agree to grant Henry a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, so that he could marry Ann Boleyn.

Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher feared the dangers for the country and the Church in Henry’s desire to renounce papal authority. Both were martyred for their refusal to accept Henry’s demands. (They were canonized in 1935.) Henry had declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church — a title Queen Elizabeth II still holds today.

After Bishop John Fisher was martyred in the Tower of London (June 22, 1535), Henry sent his men to Fisher’s church in Rochester and had them confiscate everything in sight, including his excellent library. They were even instructed to remove his bishop’s insignia from the ends of the pews in the church, which they did by scraping the carving off with knives.

The new religious body Henry founded was a blend of government and church that made the political leader the head of the church. Soon the government passed several penal laws that oppressed Catholics in many ways. Monasteries were taken over by the government, altars in parish churches were smashed and replaced with wooden tables to celebrate the supper of the Lord, not the sacrifice of Christ.

The history of Catholic saints and martyrs like Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisher was suppressed. During those dark years negative attitudes about Catholics took root in British culture (the Catholic faith was called “popery”), and Catholics were reduced to a minority status.

Today the British government, through its ambassador at the Vatican, Francis Campbell, works with the Church on several international projects and wants to be in communication with the Vatican and its worldwide outreach.

Papal Visit Events

The papal visit will begin in Scotland, center of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Pope Benedict will arrive in Edinburgh on Thursday, September 16, the feast of Saint Ninian, a fourth-century Scottish saint credited as one of the first to bring the Gospel of Christ to Scotland.

The pope will be greeted at the airport by Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh (another first), and then proceed to Holyrood house, the queen’s castle and residence in Edinburgh. Queen Elizabeth will receive Pope Benedict with full state honors. He will then go on to Glasgow, on the west coast of Scotland, for an open-air Mass at Bellahouston Park, where a crowd of 100,000 is expected.

In London the following day, Pope Benedict will meet with school children and celebrate Catholic education and meet with Archbishop Vincent Nichols, head of the Catholic Church of England and Wales, and with Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, at Lambeth Palace. He will address civil society at Westminster Hall, the oldest building in the British Isles and the place where Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisher were condemned to death. In the evening he will pray at Westminster Abbey. Saturday there will be Mass at Westminster Cathedral, the Catholic cathedral, and meetings with Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Harriet Harman, leader of the opposition. There will be a working dinner for members of the government and the Vatican staff, which the pope will not attend. There will be a prayer vigil in Hyde Park.

At Westminster Abbey, Pope Benedict will visit the tomb of Saint Edward the Confessor, King of England, who died in 1066.

Cardinal Newman Beatification Ceremony

The highlight of the visit will be Sunday, September 19, when the pope will beatify Cardinal Newman at Cofton Park in Birmingham, near Rednal, where Newman was buried. The Mass will be televised on the BBC and EWTN. Catholics from the three jurisdictions will gather for the celebration — England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland as well as the Irish Republic. Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the leader of Catholics in England and Wales, as well as the bishops of Scotland and Northern Ireland will join their people in a day of joyous celebration.

John Henry Newman (February 21, 1801 - August 11, 1890) was a priest in the Church of England for thirty years, until 1845 when he entered the Catholic Church. He was an intellectual whose writings on education and the development of doctrine made a significant contribution to Victorian letters and theology.

Newman, during his years at Oxford in the mid-nineteenth century, made an invaluable contribution through his desire to see the Church of England recover a more Catholic ritual observance and doctrinal tradition. (This effort of Newman and others became known as the “Oxford movement”.) He also published many articles on the subject (“Tracts for our Times”). Ultimately, his study and writing during this period led him to Rome.

Newman’s search for the truth about religion expressed in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua makes him an inspiration for our own time and for all time. His well-known poem “The Dream of Gerontius” was set to music by Edward Elgar. His Idea of a University is still a blueprint of principles of a liberal education. His poem “Lead, Kindly Light”, written in 1833, is now a favorite hymn. His work and his witness encouraged many in their Christian faith, and inspired others to become Catholic.
Pope Benedict will undoubtedly call attention to Newman’s work with the Oxford Movement, his years as a parish priest, his conversion to the Catholic faith, and his founding of the first English Oratory (a religious order founded by Saint Philip Neri) in Maryvale near Birmingham. In 1991 Cardinal Newman was proclaimed “Venerable” by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, has commented that he hopes the pope speaks not just to Catholics about Cardinal Newman, because the English people are proud to celebrate one of their own. This visit may well be a time of affirmation for the archbishop, at a moment when the Anglican church is being torn apart by disputes over “same-sex marriage”, homosexual bishops, and ordaining women as priests and bishops.

Last November, Pope Benedict responded to some Anglican groups who indicated a desire to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church while retaining some of their liturgical customs. On November 4, 2009, the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus [groups of Anglicans] was released, along with norms detailing how this could take place. Some Anglican groups have indicated interest, but as yet there has been no formal acceptance of these groups into the Church.

Divisions between churches will never be healed quickly, as the history of the Anglican and Catholic churches demonstrates. Pope Benedict’s visit to England will be a gift of witness to faith in Christ in the midst of a growing secularism and will be done with great civility and care. He will be advancing what Pope John Paul II said in his 1995 encyclical on ecumenism Ut Unum Sint (That they may be one) is the most significant ecumenical achievement so far, “brotherhood rediscovered”.

The source of our brotherhood is not in our goodwill but in the bond of our common baptism. Pope Benedict will be reaching out to our Christian brothers of the Reformation and asking for the Holy Spirit to bring the churches together.

With the pope we, too, can walk in faith as Newman did:

Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home —
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
the distant scene — one step enough for me.

Mary Ellen Bork is married to Judge Robert Bork and lives in McLean, Virginia. She is a member of the Voices editorial board and is a board member of the John Carroll Society and Women Affirming Life.

Related Pages:

John Henry Newman's Hymns

Blessed John Henry Newman

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