LONDON – LONDON (AP) — Pilgrims will have to pay as much as 25 pounds ($39) 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 Wednesday.
The charges — believed to be a first for a papal event — are for a prayer vigil in London's Hyde Park on Sept. 18 and the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Birmingham on Sept. 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 coordinating the event, has said the taxpayers' tab for the visit to Britain could be as much as 12 million pounds, 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 Wednesday that the Vatican understands that the faithful will be asked to make a "contribution" toward the visit but are not being charged a fee as such. Lombardi said he understood that those who cannot pay will be not be required to do so.
Lombardi noted that people are 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 of charge via church parishes.
Benedict's Sept. 16-19 visit marks the first time a pope has traveled to Britain since Pope John Paul visited in 1982. During the trip, Benedict will meet with Queen Elizabeth II and will 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 pounds 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 pounds.
The church's communications' office sought to explain the cost by saying it was because the pilgrims would be "journeying" to see the pope, just as ancient pilgrims did, and would be provided with a "pilgrim pack" that includes a metro ticket.
"Those attending the gatherings are not just 'ticket' holders, nor guests nor visitors; they are gathering as a representative body of the faithful from across the U.K. and thus are more akin to the ancient notion of pilgrims journeying to a spiritual experience in the same way that the Vatican entitles all papal visits as an 'Apostolic Journey,'" the Catholic Communications Network said Wednesday in a statement responding to inquiries from The Associated Press.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a longtime Vatican watcher, said papal visits to the developed world are immensely expensive for the local church, especially when the local government doesn't pick up the full tab.
He cited the costs of everything from renting stadiums to portable toilets to hotels for Vatican officials and insurance.
"In Third World countries, life is simpler: no insurance," he said in an e-mail. "Just find an open field, throw a rug over a wooden platform."
He recalled that when Pope John Paul II visited the United States in 1987, the archbishop of Mobile declined to host him because he didn't want to bankrupt his archdiocese. "He said he would lead a delegation to New Orleans to cheer the pope" instead, Reese noted.
Monsignor Andrew Summersgill, in a podcast on the papal visit website, said: "I think it's important to stress again that one does have to be part of a group in order to attend one of the Masses or the prayer vigil."
He added that there would be opportunities for people to see the pope as he travels around.
Associated Press Writers Nicole Winfield and Victor Simpson contributed to this story from Rome.