One thing which has clearly emerged in the run-up to the Papal Visit to Britain – Pope Benedict is coming in September – is the number of lay initiatives emerging in these busy weeks.
There are a great many worrying aspects to the trip. It was initially proposed by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and not by the Catholic Bishops, and is a State visit which involves public expenditure at a time when everyone is talking about the need to cut back on all use of public funds. It comes at a time of controversy and much media pressure on the subject of sexual abuse. There has been confusion over venues and over how many people will be allowed to attend the various planned events.
But meanwhile, lay Catholics have seized opportunities to make good things happen. Chief among these is Catholic Voices. You will be hearing quite a lot from them over the next weeks. The voices are those of a team of young Catholics, chosen from a large number of volunteers, who will speak up for the Church on TV and radio whenever some one is needed for an interview or discussion. Led and trained by Jack Valero – who has already tasted controversy in his role as an Opus Dei spokesman, and is no stranger to media pressure – they are ready for action and will be busy not only in connection with the Papal visit, but as a long-term venture.
Catholic children have also been busy. The Association of Catholic Women teamed up with the Catholic Truth Society to run a project for children at primary schools across Britain, in which they were invited to find out about the Pope, about St Peter, about the Papacy, and about the visit to Britain, and to write about it.
They also wrote prayers for the Pope. Cash prizes and trophies went to the winning schools, and individual book prizes to the children – and some of the prayers, and children’s letters to the Holy Father, are to be published by the CTS. (Some are very moving – asking the Holy Father to pray, for example, for uncles and daddies serving in Afghanistan, or for people who have died. Some are rather charming, like the child who urged the Pope to visit her grandma’s house, where he’d be sure to get a lovely tea).
The CTS has also produced a number of books to mark the Papal visit. A cheerful question-and-answer book, with questions from all sorts of children, is proving very popular: “Why does the Pope wear white?” was launched with a lively gathering at a London Catholic primary school. Another lavish picture book, beautifully illustrated, is for First Communion children and tells the story of the Holy Father’s encounter with children in Rome – a book to treasure. There are also prayer books, prayer cards, and booklets of relevant information such as “A Pope of Surprises,” describing some of Pope Benedict’s acts during the first five years of his reign.
Catholics in Britain have been given prayer cards to prepare for the Papal visit, and these quote the words of the Pope to the English, Welsh and Scottish Bishops: “Encourage your people to pray that it will be a time of grace for the whole Catholic community…Assure them that the Pope constantly remembers them in his prayers and holds them in his heart.”