Pilgrims will have to pay as much as £25 ($54) to attend one of the two public events in England to be led by Pope Benedict XVI during his visit in September, church officials said yesterday.
The charges – believed to be a first for a papal event – are for a prayer vigil in London’s Hyde Park on September 18 and the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Birmingham on September 19.
Benedict’s four-day visit to England and Scotland has been controversial almost from the start, with thousands of Britons signing a petition earlier this year against the Pope’s presence in the wake of outrage over sex crimes against children committed by Catholic priests.
Critics have also complained about the cost. Chris Patten, the official co-ordinating the event, has said the taxpayers’ tab for the visit to Britain could be as much as £12 million, not counting extra policing costs.
The previous Government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown invited the Pope – a decision the austerity-minded new coalition Government has not sought to change, despite some public unease.
In Rome, Vatican spokesman the Rev Federico Lombardi said yesterday that the Vatican understood that the faithful would be asked to make a “contribution” towards the visit but were not being charged a fee as such. Lombardi said he understood that those who cannot pay will not be required to do so.
Lombardi noted that people were not charged to see the Pope at the Vatican, in Italy or anywhere in the world. Even during the Pope’s 2008 high-security visit to the United States, tickets were given out free through church parishes.
Benedict’s September 16-19 visit marks the first time a Pope has travelled to Britain since Pope John Paul visited in 1982.
During the trip, Benedict will meet Queen Elizabeth II and preside over the beatification of Newman – an important 19th century Anglican convert to Catholicism.
Church officials in England, who announced some details of the charges earlier this month, say those who wish to attend the events in London or Birmingham must join a parish group, and those groups will travel to the event by bus. Church officials say no one will be allowed to travel to the event on their own.
The Church is charging £25 for transportation to the Newman beatification in Birmingham, where 70,000 tickets are available. In Hyde Park, where up to 130,000 people may attend the vigil, the charge will be £10.