Scotland Honored, a Bit Excited, by Pope

Looking Ahead to Day 1 of UK Trip

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By Edward Pentin

EDINBURGH, Scotland, SEPT. 15, 2010 ( When Benedict XVI visited Malta earlier this year, the island’s buildings were awash with Vatican flags and decorative banners long before the Holy Father had even arrived. The sense of excitement and eager anticipation was tangible, despite it coming at what was arguably the lowest point in the sexual abuse crisis this year.

Here in Edinburgh on the other hand, on the eve the Pope’s first state visit to Britain, not a glimpse of Vatican City State’s yellow and white colors can be seen. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to know the Pope was coming here at all: People are going about their daily business and tourists appear to be strolling obliviously up the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle. Only the occasional notice of travel disruption tomorrow, or the sight of an English bishop boarding a bus, remind you that the Successor of Peter is coming.

But Scotland, of course, is not Malta. It’s a largely a Presbyterian country with just 667,000 Catholics, or 13% of the country’s population. John Knox, the founder of the Presbyterian church, was born not far from here, and today 42% of the population profess to belong to his church. Edinburgh also has strong historical links to the Enlightenment: The city is the birth and resting place of one of its most famous fathers, the 18th-century empiricist David Hume.

Yet, as Benedict XVI may gently point out tomorrow, Scottish culture and identity owe much to the Catholic Church, and in particular St. Ninian whose feast day providentially falls on the day of the Holy Father’s arrival.

The saint was sent from Rome to convert the Picts in 397 and formed one of the country’s first Christian settlements. Following St. Columba’s founding of a monastery in the 6th century on the island of Iona, the faith was firmly established in the country. Its relationship with Rome would win it the title: “Specialis Filia Romanae Ecclesiae,” or Special daughter of the Holy See, and the Church, through papal decree, would create the ancient universities of St. Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen.

The Reformation would eventually lead to rupture and the marginalization of the Church until the 19th century when the hierarchy was restored. The Church then had to care for a large number of poor and destitute, particularly in Glasgow, which led to a large number of conversions (the city had just a dozen Catholics registered living there at the end of the 18th century; today there are over a quarter of a million).  


Perhaps for this reason, coupled with the immigration of Catholics from Ireland and more recently from Eastern Europe, Scotland is more Catholic-friendly than fellow Britons south of the border. In a survey ahead of the Pope’s visit, only 5% said they were strongly opposed to the Pope coming. Speaking with Edinburgh residents today, this seemed to hold true: they seem moderately excited and honored to have the Pope visit their country, even if they may be somewhat uninterested in what he has to say. Catholic employees and school children will be allowed to take time off to see him, and it’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, who is a Catholic, is certain to give the Holy Father a warm welcome. Around 1,000 bag pipers will be on hand to greet him, and a special tartan scarf has been created for the event.   

The Pope is scheduled to arrive in Edinburgh at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday and will be met off the plane by the Duke of Edinburgh — a very rare gesture showing how significant this state visit is to the Queen. He’ll then be driven in a motorcade to the Palace of Holyrood House, the Queen’s official Scottish residence, for a state welcome and audience at 11 a.m. After private talks between just the Holy Father, the Queen and Prince Phillip, both the Pope and Her Majesty will exchange greetings and gifts. The government is billing the speeches as highly significant and of great historic importance.

The Holy Father will then travel through the streets of Edinburgh in the popemobile to Archbishop’s House for lunch, passing some landmarks synonymous with the city’s troubled Christian past. He’ll travel over Waterloo Place, close to the grave of David Hume, and then along Princes Street (named after George III’s sons, a monarch who objected to it being called St. Giles Street after the patron saint of the city). But he’ll also pass a monument of the great Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott, whose writings greatly influenced Cardinal John Henry Newman.

After lunch with Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien and his brother bishops, a motorcade will take the Holy Father to Glasgow and Bellahouston Park where he will celebrate Mass. Crowds of 100,000 are expected, significantly less than the 300,000 who saw John Paul II at the same venue in 1982, but this appears to be because the capacity has been reduced since a stadium disaster in England led to stricter crowd controls.

After an early rise and a very full day, the Pope’s day will conclude with a flight to London and a transfer to the Apostolic Nunciature in Wimbledon where he’ll arrive around 10 p.m., or more like 11 p.m. Rome time.   

Meanwhile, much is being made in the mainstream media about Cardinal Walter Kasper’s words today about Britain being a “Third World Country,” but his comments are unlikely to impede the trip.

It’s a visit the Holy Father appears to be genuinely looking forward to: Watching him at his Angelus address on Sunday, during which he referred to Cardinal Newman and asked for prayers ahead of the visit, he was beaming and playing with the crowd.

Protests or not, he seems determined to enjoy it.

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