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Vatican spokesman says papal trip will be challenging

Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi (CNS photo)

The Vatican spokesman has said that Pope Benedict’s trip to Britain next week will be challenging, but not dangerous.

Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, Vatican spokesman, reviewed plans for the Pope’s September 16-19 trip to Scotland and England and answered reporters’ questions, including queries about planned protests, a possible papal meeting with victims of clerical sexual abuse, the participation of Anglican women priests at a papal prayer service and the costs of the trip to British taxpayers.

“On other trips as well, there have been protests, debates and objections by some groups,” Fr Lombardi told reporters yesterday.

While there might be more groups in Britain being more vocal about their objections to the trip, “this is part of the normal climate of a very pluralistic society where there is wide freedom of expression”, he said.

“There is nothing to be surprised about, but at the same time, we don’t see anything to be worried about either,” he said.

Fr Lombardi also said the media coverage of the protest groups appears to be giving them greater importance than they deserve, especially when compared to the results of surveys indicating a certain level of British interest in hearing what the pope has to say.

The Vatican spokesman was asked if Pope Benedict would meet with victims of clerical sex abuse in Great Britain, as he did during trips to the United States, Australia and Malta.

Fr Lombardi said the Vatican never announced those meetings ahead of time “to guarantee that they would not be disturbed by excessive publicity” and “to ensure they would be discrete, personal, spiritual, profound and serene encounters”.

“That is valid for this trip as well: No meeting is listed in the programme,” he said. “I will not say there will be or won’t be a meeting, but as in the past, if there is a meeting, I will inform you.”

“For an event like this, one wants to maintain a certain discretion and avoid an uproar that would not be desired by the pope or by the participants.”

In early September, the British media were speculating over what the Vatican reaction would be to the Church of England’s plan to have some of its senior women clergy participating in an evening prayer service with the Pope on September 17 in Westminster Abbey in London.

Asked if their participation would pose a problem for the Pope, Fr Lombardi said that for the Catholic Church, the question of ordination is tied closely to the celebration of the Eucharist, but “anyone can celebrate vespers”.

“If there are women Anglican ministers, it absolutely is not a problem for us, if it’s not a Eucharistic celebration,” he said. The Pope has met many Anglican, Lutheran and other women priests and bishops in the last five years, he added.

The Pope’s four-day trip is expected to cost British taxpayers an estimated £12 million, and reporters asked Fr Lombardi for his reaction to critics’ complaints about the government footing the bill, rather than the Vatican.

The Pope was invited to Britain by the government and by the Catholic bishops’ conferences of Scotland and England and Wales, he said.

“It’s not like he said, ‘I’m getting on a plane and going to England, where I’ll impose my presence’,” then asked the government and local Church to pay the costs, Fr Lombardi said.

It’s obvious that those who invited him would cover the costs of the visit, he said, adding that a huge portion of the expenditures deal with security and logistics, including adequate public sanitation and safety, and those costs have increased enormously in the past 20 years.