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Pope makes first state visit to U.K. in nearly 500 years

By Stephanie Gosk, NBC News Correspondent

EDINBURGH – It was a tawdry affair. In 1534, the King of England asked the Roman Catholic Church to grant him a divorce, so he could marry his mistress with a clear conscience. The Vatican wouldn’t allow it. Furious with the decision, Henry the VIII chose the measured response. He broke with Rome, granted himself an annulment, and started the English Reformation.

Pope Benedict the XVI landed in the U.K. on Thursday for a four-day visit, with healing the divisions from that centuries old split as one of his major objectives. But it won’t be the pontiff’s only challenge.

The Catholic Church faces a list of issues in this country and throughout Europe that could be potentially far more damaging.



Revelations of sexual abuse by priests, which first surfaced in the U.S. ten years ago, have now spread across the continent.

Many European Catholics have grown increasingly frustrated by what they see as Rome’s unyielding conservative doctrine.

A recent poll of Catholics in the U.K. showed that 49 percent say celibacy in the priesthood should be relaxed and 62 percent believe women in the church should have more authority.

Growing secularization
But perhaps the single most challenging issue for any religion in this part of the world is the growing trend of secularization. Only 12 percent of the British population regularly celebrates any faith at all.

It is only the second time since the reformation that a serving pope has visited the U.K., (Pope John Paul II was here in 1982) and the first official state visit since then, so the novelty of Benedict’s visit is generating excitement even amidst the controversy.

Mugs and tee-shirts are on sale all around the country emblazoned with the trip’s theme "Heart Speaks Unto Heart: The Papal Visit to the UK 2010."

The first stop is Scotland. In Edinburgh, Catholic school kids are practicing their hymns and getting ready to march in a parade alongside the pope Thursday morning.

When we visited one of those schools on Wednesday, the ten year-olds I talked to could barely contain their nerves and excitement.

One little boy turned to me with wide eyes and said, “You know the pope-mobile can go 150 miles an hour.” Who knew?

There are several outdoor masses scheduled as well as a string of meet and greets with notables like Queen Elizabeth, Prime Minister David Cameron, and Scottish singing sensation Susan Boyle, who is scheduled to perform for the pontiff in Glasgow.

The trip will culminate with a rare beatification ceremony, the penultimate step before sainthood, for the 19th century Cardinal John Henry Newman, who was a leading figures in the Oxford Movement within the Church of England.

The group argued that its church should adopt some Catholic beliefs and Newman eventually converted to the Catholic faith.

Few here believe that Benedict will be able to solve the myriad of problems the British Catholic Church faces in just four days, but as many of the Catholics here have told me, it is still a visit a rare visit from the Pope and they are glad he is coming.