Organisers of the papal visit have announced a new venue for John Henry Newman’s beatification, almost halving the number of people able to attend.
A Vatican team, led by Dr Alberto Gasbarri, visited the new site on Monday, choosing a Birmingham park over Coventry Airport, which had been originally earmarked for the ceremony.
Cofton Park – the venue in Birmingham ultimately chosen for the main event of the papal visit in September – can hold around 80,000 people, according to an early estimate by organisers. Coventry Airport would have been able to accommodate approximately 150,000 faithful.
A spokesman for the Church said the location had been chosen because of its closeness to Rednal, where Cardinal Newman was buried. He said the new location would also enable the Pope to go to the Birmingham Oratory.
Pope Benedict is expected to go straight to Cardinal Newman’s rooms and pray in his private chapel dedicated to St Francis de Sales. St Francis coined the phrase Cor ad cor loquitur, or “Heart speaks to heart”, which is the motto for the papal visit.
The spokesman said: “Coventry was being discussed in good faith but as the detail of the planning became more apparent and the Pope was keen on something with more historical references and links to Newman the attraction of moving it to Cofton Park became more apparent.
“After lengthy discussions with the Vatican we were hoping for something with close historical references. And Cofton is our preferred venue in Birmingham.”
There were some doubts about whether the Pope would be able to go to the Birmingham Oratory because of controversies within the community. Two members were removed to abbeys in Leicestershire and Scotland last month while a third was sent home. In December last year Fr Paul Chavasse was replaced as Provost of the Birmingham Oratory and actor for Cardinal Newman’s Cause.
Fr Richard Duffield, the current Provost of the Birmingham Oratory, said: “It’s marvellous news. We’re utterly delighted. It was the Holy Father’s personal wish to come here and now he’s able to come. I believe – and I don’t want to put words in his mouth – that he is pleased too.”
Mgr Andrew Summersgill, who is in charge of organising the papal visit on behalf of the bishops of England and Wales, said the “original intention had been to locate the beatification in a venue that had some experience of a papal celebration – Coventry Airport”.
“But we came back to looking at a place that would be more explicitly connected with the ministry and with the life and the death of Cardinal Newman, and to try to weave that theme much, much more obviously and carefully into the day of the beatification. So Cofton was chosen because it is immediately adjacent to Rednal, which is the house where Cardinal Newman would go and spend some time, both to work and to have some peace and quiet.
“It is, of course, the site of his burial and, as I understand it, it would also be a place with which he personally was quite familiar, where he would have walked and visited while he was at Rednal.”
Councillor John Mutton, the leader of Coventry City Council, said he received a phone call last week from Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster explaining that Coventry would not be the venue for the beatification Mass.
He told the Coventry Telegraph that the archbishop said that the work that had been done at Coventry could be used in Birmingham.
Mr Mutton also said: “Obviously, there will be a large number of Catholics and maybe a number of non-Catholics who will be disappointed.
“However, I can understand the reason given. Birmingham is not the other end of the country and people will still be able to go there for the day.”
The Church announced that Coventry Airport would be the venue for the Mass in March. Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass there during his pastoral visit in 1982. Reports about the soaring costs of the visit fuelled speculation for weeks that the Mass scheduled for Coventry Airport would take place elsewhere.
Both Longbridge car factory and the seminary at Oscott were reported as possible venues for the beatification.
A source close to the Church said that the airport had been booked but that in April a new owner, Sir Peter Rigby, bought Coventry Airport. Although Sir Peter was happy for the airport to be closed for five days for the Mass to take place – a longer period was commercially not viable – the planners for the event decided that the allotted time was not sufficient for setting up for the Mass.
Lord Patten of Barnes, who was nominated to be the Government’s representative for the visit, said the total cost for the visit has not been established.
In a letter to the National Secular Society, Lord Patten wrote: “Overall, costs can be divided into two categories: policing costs, which will be met by the state from existing policing budgets, and non-policing costs, which will be split between the Catholic Church and the Government. The total size of the costs are not yet confirmed, but discussions are continuing both to establish clear figures for the total costs and to decide the appropriate levels of contribution from the Government and the Catholic bishops’ conference.”
Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham said the decision to beatify Newman at Cofton Park emphasised the cardinal’s “long association with his adopted city”.
He said: “The finest recognition Cardinal Newman received was from the ordinary people of Birmingham, whose lives were changed because of their contact with him, and more than 15,000 people spontaneously lined his funeral route … as a final tribute to this holy, caring parish priest.”