Cardinal Newman was one of the greatest Englishmen, not just of his own times, but of any times. Like other courageous men and women of faith he believed passionately that we should follow our consciences. Many, too many, have died for that same cause. In Britain their numbers have included both Protestant and Catholic martyrs, like Thomas More, whose trial took place in Westminster Hall, where the Pope will address representatives of civil society from across our country.
At the end of his historic visit to Britain this week, Pope Benedict XVI will beatify the Cardinal during mass in a Birmingham park where the Cardinal used to take his recreation during his years as a simple parish priest in that great industrial city. It will be a moving climax to the first official visit ever made to Britain by a pope.
I use the word historic for this visit. That can often be an over-worked cliché. But on this occasion it is wholly accurate. That is why television channels around the world will be covering every moment of the four days he spends with us.
As Britain’s Prime Minister I welcome the fact that my predecessors first invited the Pope to visit this country and I am delighted that he accepted that invitation and the one he received from Her Majesty the Queen. He comes here as a Head of State and leader of a church with over 6 million members in Britain and almost 1.2 billion around the world.
Like other faith groups, the Catholic Church proclaims a message of peace and justice to the world and we work closely with it in the furtherance of these causes.
Despite the tough times through which we are battling, we have ring-fenced spending on overseas development. The alleviation of poverty is one of the greatest challenges facing the world. The grotesque condition in which too many live today, with disease and misery their constant companions, are a moral affront to all of us who live in comfort in rich countries.
The Catholic Church and its agencies are in the frontlines of the fight against poverty throughout the world. We work with them – organisations like CAFOD, SCIAF, Trocaire and Caritas – in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, Catholic agencies at local churches provide about a quarter of all primary education and healthcare, and an equally large part of the services for all those suffering from AIDS.
The Holy See is a partner in pursuit of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, which will be discussed at the UN Headquarters in New York again next week, at which the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg will represent this country. For our part, we are totally committed to meeting the UN target of spending 0.7 per cent of our national income on aid by 2013. And we want to ensure that the money we spend goes to those who need it most. Sustainable economic development is closely linked to political stability and security. A world in which there is a yawning gap between the rich and the poor will be more dangerous and less secure for all of us.
We are also close partners of the global Catholic Church in the campaign against climate change. Once again, it is the poor who will suffer most if we do not act to moderate global warming. What is required is not just international agreement to abate carbon dioxide emissions, difficult as that is. We need to develop a new approach to economic growth, defining and pursuing it in ways that respect and preserve our natural environment.
The new British Government strongly believes in pushing decisions down to the local level, and in involving as many people and organisations as possible in working for and achieving the well-being of every community. The great 18th century Tory philosopher, Edmund Burke, called these parts of society, the “little platoons” and argued that responsibility should be spread among them. I call it the Big Society – where we’re all in it together, where everyone pulls together and works together; a more responsible society, where we all exercise our responsibilities to each other, to our families and to our communities. One where we don’t just ask what are my entitlements, but what are my responsibilities.
Catholic social teaching has made a similar case for more than a century, and Catholic organisations work alongside other faith groups in education and welfare to make our country more harmonious and caring. Of course, the State has a role itself in promoting individual wellbeing, but this work should dovetail with what others do, not subvert it.
There has been a lot of exaggerated comment that Pope Benedict will this week be visiting a largely secular country. I do not agree with this and there is much evidence in polls and the attendance at religious services to contradict it. But in any case I believe such comment misses the point. The Pope’s visit should not just be welcomed by British Catholics or people of faith more broadly but by all who welcome what faith groups contribute to our society and who understand that for many faith is a gift to be cherished, not a problem to be overcome.
We may not always agree with the Holy See on every issue. But that should not prevent us from acknowledging that the Holy See’s broader message can help challenge us to ask searching questions about our society and how we treat ourselves and each other.
Cardinal Newman once said that one little deed, whether by someone who helps “to relieve the sick and needy” or someone who “forgives an enemy”…evinces more true faith than could be shown by “the most fluent religious conversation” or “the most intimate knowledge of Scripture.”
Cardinal Newman is greatly remembered in Birmingham for his care for its people. During a cholera outbreak in the city, he worked tirelessly among the poor and sick. And when he himself died, the poor of the city turned out in their thousands to line the streets. Inscribed on the pall of his coffin, was his motto “Heart speaks to heart”. Hardly surprisingly, it is the theme of this Papal visit. I hope that it will be reflected in the warm welcome that Pope Benedict receives in Britain and in the sentiments that he leaves behind when he returns to Rome.
The history behind “When Irish Eyes are Smiling”