Edinburgh: After months of preparation and controversy, Pope Benedict XVI arrives in the United Kingdom on Thursday for a four-day visit overshadowed by sex abuse scandals that have shaken confidence in the church.
Thousands of tickets to papal events remain unclaimed in an increasingly secular country even as many of the faithful express joy about his imminent arrival.
The trip is the first state visit by a pope to the UK, and he will be received by Queen Elizabeth II at her official residence in Scotland, symbolically significant because of the historic divide between the officially Protestant nation and the Catholic Church.
The queen is head of the Church of England, which split acrimoniously from Rome in the 16th century, a division followed by centuries of anti-Catholic sentiment. The visit also coincides with the 450th anniversary of the Reformation in Scotland.
The pope left from Rome’s Ciampino airport at about 11:45am, in sunny weather. He was due to arrive at Edinburgh airport at 3:00pm.
After meeting the queen at The Palace of Holyrood House on Thursday morning, the Pope will take part in a parade through Edinburgh city center where police expect up to 100,000 well-wishers to line the streets. The Scottish Government plans to fly the Vatican City flag at its headquarters to mark the historic visit.
The Catholic Church has been rocked by a series of sex abuse scandals, from covered-up cases in Boston to a report in Belgium this week that revealed hundreds of victims’ harrowing accounts of molestation that led to at least 13 suicides. The pope has been criticized for his response to the crisis and the fallout from the scandal appears to have dampened enthusiasm for his visit.
Amid the abuse scandal and recession, there is also strong opposition to Benedict’s hard line against homosexuality, abortion and using condoms to prevent AIDS.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien, leader of Scotland’s minority Catholics, admitted the damage caused by the sex scandals has been considerable.
In a statement, he said the abuse cases have “caused terrible injury to children and young adults, and equally horrible have been the cover-ups, but I think the pope has put strong steps to prevent it from happening. Nobody loses face by saying ’sorry’ and ’I’m trying to do better’.”
Only 65,000 of the faithful are expected to attend an open air Mass at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow later on Thursday, compared to the 100,000 expected by authorities, according to estimates by Strathclyde Police.
At the Mass the Pope will be serenaded by Susan Boyle, the “Britain’s Got Talent” reality show star who shot to global fame last year.
The bookish pontiff lacks the charisma of his predecessor John Paul II, who pulled in a crowd of 250,000 for Mass at the same Glasgow park during his pastoral visit in 1982.
A beatification event will follow on Sunday for Cardinal John Newman in Birmingham, which will see the 19th-century English philosopher take a step on his way to sainthood.
The estimated £12 million ($18.6-million) cost of the visit, not including security, has been attacked by critics at a time when Britain faces deep budget cuts.
Security for Thursday’s events in Scotland alone will cost 1 million pound ($1.55 million), according to the UK government. The Pope will travel from Edinburgh to Glasgow in a 26-car convoy. More than 1,000 police officers will be deployed in Glasgow and 600 in Edinburgh, and they will be backed up by armed response units.
A number of demonstrations are expected in Edinburgh city center including 70 protesters led by Ulster Protestant leader the Rev. Ian Paisley at the Magdalen Chapel, where John Knox, the leader of the Scottish Reformation, preached.
“We are championing those who have been very, very badly treated by these priests of Rome,” Paisley said of the sex abuse scandals.
While some may have been put off by the 20-pound ($31) suggested donation for a ticket to Bellahouston to cover transportation costs, detractors such as the Humanist Society of Scotland believe people are indifferent to the papal visit because of the church scandals and growing secularism.
There are about 850,000 Catholics in Scotland, according to the 2001 U.K. Census, but 27 percent of Scots about 1.5 million did not register a religion or said they were atheists.
“We believe that the vast majority of people do not approve of this visit, or the state funding of it,” said Tim Maguire of the Humanist Society. “Politicians pay too much heed to the religious vote when in fact the majority is nonreligious.”
His organization has placed billboards along the route the Pope will take between Edinburgh and Glasgow that read: “Two million Scots are good without God.”
Away from the protests, however, many Catholics were looking forward to the visit. At St. Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh some worshippers are eagerly preparing for the Pope’s arrival.
“It is wonderful that the Holy Father is coming to Scotland and I prayed today for good weather tomorrow,” said Mary McManus, 78.
James Ferguson, 72, a retired electrician, acknowledged that the church scandals were “sickening.”
But, “what’s worse is that opponents of the church have made hay with them and the church’s response to them,” he said. “In some ways we are being made to feel foolish about being Catholic and so I hope this visit will make us proud.”