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PM puts Lord Patten in charge of papal visit

Lord Patten, Britain’s last governor of Hong Kong, is to take over the beleaguered organisation of Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain in September, working with teams from the Church, the Cabinet Office and other Government departments.

As confusion continues over the venues for the major events of the Pope’s visit, and as costs are said to be rising dramatically, the unexpected appointment of Lord Patten by the Prime Minister is being seen as an indication of the seriousness of the problems still to be resolved.

Respected for his diplomatic skills, Lord Patten has long been one of the most senior Catholics in British politics. A former leading minister and chairman of the Conservative Party, Chris Patten was one of Britain’s European Commissioners in the early years of the decade. He is now Chancellor of Oxford University.

A spokesman for the Catholic Church in England and Wales welcomed Lord Patten’s appointment, saying: “This will enable the plans for the visit, which are well advanced, to move into a decisive phase.”

Because so many bodies are involved in the Pope’s visit, including not just the Church and the Foreign Office but also other Government departments, overall responsibility for coordination lies with the Cabinet Office “at the hub of it”, a spokesman for the Cabinet Office told The Catholic Herald. Lord Patten will be “the Prime Minister’s personal representative, to co-ordinate all the Government elements of the visit and to work with the bishops’ conference”, he said.

Lord Patten’s appointment, announced on Tuesday, comes in the wake of press reports of a meeting in which the bishops of England and Wales were told that the cost to the Church of Pope Benedict’s visit had almost doubled from just under £7 million to something approaching £14 million.

However, the spokesman said: “I don’t know where that came from; the first I saw of it was in the Spectator.” He also said that the figure of £7 million was “never the budget but a fundraising target”.

The archbishops were allegedly advised to abandon plans for the open-air Mass at Coventry Airport, at which Cardinal John Henry Newman will be beatified, for a lower-key event at St Mary’s College, Oscott, the seminary near Sutton Coldfield. Instead of 200,000 worshippers able to attend, the number would be cut to just 10,000. But sources say the Vatican is insisting on the major event as previously planned.

On what has always been seen as the highlight of the Pope’s visit the official website says only: “The final day of the visit is focused very much on the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, and the Pope will celebrate that beatification in the West Midlands. He will conclude the day by meeting with the bishops of England, Scotland and Wales in Oscott College before returning to Rome from Birmingham Airport.”

With only four months to go before the visit many of the key events are yet to be confirmed – including the prayer vigil in Hyde Park.

A spokeswoman for Royal Parks said: “Discussions with the Church are ongoing with regard to a possible event,” but that “nothing has been finalised yet”. There is no mention of it at all on the official website.

There has been criticism by some Catholic commentators of Mgr Andrew Summersgill, the Church’s organiser of the Pope’s visit, for a lack of clarity. But the Church spokesman said that many aspects of the organisation were out of the Church’s hands.

“The Government organises the venues for the major events; the Church’s role is to put on the events within the venues,” he said. “Within the draft programme we are hoping to happen, we are hoping that the beatification will take place at Coventry Airport, but we need to wait until everything has been dotted and crossed,” he said. He confirmed that the final programme will not be confirmed until July.

But some events are listed in detail on the papal visits website, including Pope Benedict’s meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Catholic and Anglican bishops, and his meeting with schoolchildren and students.

“When you look at closed venues, smaller events with defined perimeters and no security issues, this is a discrete venue where we can put things on. The larger events involve many other bodies,” the Church spokesman said.

The Cabinet Office spokesman said detailed planning of the visit would have been “pointless” before the general election.

Further confusion has been raised by reports that travel agency Pax Travel was offering tickets to the beatification of Newman as part of a three-day package tour to Birmingham. Managing director Philip Dean said this was not the case. The package for foreign visitors is only for Oratorians and Friends of Newman, and all names must be submitted to Fr Richard Duffield, provost of Birmingham Oratory, who will have tickets to allocate.

An earlier controversy is still having repercussions. In April a memo from a Foreign Office team, suggesting the launch of “Benedict condoms” and other distasteful ideas, was leaked. The head of the Foreign Office team responsible, Anjoum Noorani, has now been given a formal written final warning which will remain in effect for five years, and has been banned from any foreign postings.