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VATICAN LETTER Aug-27-2010 (900 words) Backgrounder. With photo. xxxi

Planning, protocol and pluralism: British ambassador prepares for pope

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The life of an ambassador to the Vatican is filled with meetings, liturgies, conferences, reports and social events.

About a dozen members of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican seem to be everywhere -- at every papal event, every big conference and even at the lectures of guest speakers at pontifical universities.

Francis Campbell, the British ambassador to the Vatican, is one member of the group of diplomats who seem to spend every afternoon and evening running from a meeting to a conference and then on to a reception or dinner party.

Somehow, despite the busyness, he and at least one other member of the diplomatic corps find time to plan fairly elaborate practical jokes to play on their colleagues and on journalists.

But for the past year, he has had what he described as being almost another full-time job: preparing for Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Great Britain Sept. 16-19.

At its most basic level, the job of an ambassador is to explain his home government to his host government and explain his host government to his own bosses.

Obviously, the people who read his regular reports to London know what the Vatican is, who the pope is and what the main issues of mutual concern are.

But a lot more people from various sectors of government and civil society are involved in a papal visit -- in setting the schedule, inviting the guests and organizing security -- and it's the ambassador's job to make sure all of them are up to speed on the relationship between the British government and the Vatican.

The previous time Great Britain hosted a papal visit was 1982 when Pope John Paul II made the trip.

No one who is now in the British Embassy to the Holy See was working there at the time, but there are files of information about the visit 28 years ago.

"This time around it's a very different visit for a number of reasons," particularly because the 2010 visit is a state visit as well as a pastoral one, Campbell said.

Pope John Paul did meet Queen Elizabeth II and various government leaders in 1982, but the whole atmosphere was restrained because the United Kingdom and Argentina were at war over the Falkland Islands and the Vatican was treading carefully.

The first appointment on Pope Benedict's calendar Sept. 16 is a meeting with the queen at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, followed by a reception with 450 people, he said.

"The queen will introduce the pope to about 120 people representing different walks of life," he said.

Campbell said he expects the event will attract a lot of attention in Great Britain, but he also thinks the pope could make a big impact when he speaks Sept. 17 in London's historic Westminster Hall, a building completed in 1099 and once used for coronation festivities and as a venue for courts of law. In fact, St. Thomas More was condemned to death at Westminster Hall in 1535.

Leaders of British civil society, including artists, politicians, scholars and business officials, will attend the pope's speech in Westminster Hall.

Campbell said the fact that the pope was invited to speak in the same place where Thomas More was condemned -- for not siding with King Henry VIII in his debate with the Roman Catholic Church at a time of extreme church-state tensions -- "symbolizes a rapprochement" between British society and the papacy.

"It also says something about where we are as a country, the extent of religious pluralism and of tolerance and acceptance of people of other faiths and other denominations," said Campbell, the first Catholic to serve at British ambassador to the Vatican since the Reformation.

Campbell said that while many people in Italy, including at the Vatican, describe Great Britain as "very secular," 70 percent of the population identifies itself as Christian and the churches are very active in public debates.

Britain, he said, "is not a society that is apathetic about religion," and that can be seen in the media coverage in the run-up to the pope's visit.

"Some people would say, 'Well, do you prefer indifference or antagonism?' and I think I would prefer antagonism because it means you're relevant," he said.

In late August, Campbell's role in the planning process transformed into service as a consultant on the speeches government officials will make to the pope, on finalizing the guest list for government-hosted events and on organizing a working dinner for Vatican officials, British government representatives and leaders of other Christian churches and religious groups.

People who do not understand why Great Britain continues to have diplomatic relations with the Vatican haven't taken the time to see how many issues of concern to Great Britain are also issues of concern to the Vatican, including international development and showing solidarity with the poor, particularly by providing education and health care, he said.

The working dinner, which the pope will not attend, will cover "themes that are of importance in the state-to-state relationship between the U.K. and the Holy See. Those include climate change, disarmament, ethics in the economy, levels of international development spending, interfaith dialogue (and) ecumenism," he said.

Campbell will complete a five-year term at the Vatican in December "and to finish with a visit is something fantastic, but it's like a completely different full-time job," he said.


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