DJ: Assuming that it does go ahead, what are your hopes from the Pope's visit?
VN: When we look back to the visit of John Paul II of 1982 it can be summed up like this. Here was the Pope as the first pastor of the Catholic Church. He came and celebrated the sacraments of the Church and in doing so he confirmed the strength of the Catholic community. This is quite different. Benedict represents the project of faith and reason working together, and a witness to the contribution that faith and reason together make towards European society. I hope and pray that a voice of faith will speak for the reasonableness of faith and its ability to raise our expectation of ourselves and each other through the power of the grace of God. He will do it in a way that resonates in this English context. He has a great love of Newman and will be very sensitive to the Englishness as much as the Europeanness of our situation. So far I have sensed nothing but enthusiasm and welcome for this visit from the government and the Archbishop of Canterbury. It will convince many people of the goodness of faith and the contribution it can make to the project of faith and reason in the 21st century.
DJ: Will the visit be welcomed by other faith communities in the UK? We know Archbishop Rowan is on-side, but what about the non-Christian faiths here? I'm thinking about Pope's controversial Regensburg lecture and the consequences of that. Will there be some Muslims who will object?
VN: To give him due credit, the Pope has worked quite carefully and assiduously, for example in his visit to Turkey, to find a point of dialogue with Muslims. He also, after the Regensburg lecture, established quite a detailed and high-level academic discussion with 300 Muslim scholars from around the world. The point of the lecture was to say how much can we, two great world religions, get together to discuss the reasonableness of God? That was the central point that he was making. He has worked extremely assiduously on that. His visit to the Holy Land was extremely well judged. I don't think that there were any seriously critical comments from the state of Israel. The other night, I went to the Hindu temple at Neasden, with 4,500 Hindus, along with the heads of the other faiths in Brent, and civic leaders. What was so evident there was the depth of the respect for a holy person: somebody who stands with a commitment in their own life to the religious quest. I'm quite sure that that would be extended with enormous warmth towards the Pope.
This idea that the divisions in society lie between the faiths is not true: it's a false dichotomy. It's as old hat now as the idea that Muslims will be offended if you celebrate Christmas — they're not offended in the least! What they want to see is strong religious faith — with a space for their own, with all the difficulties that that can bring. But the divisions are not there. The divisions are more between those who understand the importance of religious faith and those who don't-those who are aggressively secularist. But my impression is that the aggressive secularist voice, even if it gets a lot of attention, does not speak for most people in this country, who understand the importance of religious faith and know the shortcomings of the practice of any faith, particularly of shortcomings in the practice of the Catholic faith, but nevertheless are still able to say that this is something that is important that we can't afford to lose.
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