EDINBURGH, Scotland – Pope Benedict XVI arrives in the United Kingdom on Thursday for a four-day visit, a controversial yet historic state trip that has been overshadowed by the sex abuse scandals which have shaken confidence in the Roman Catholic Church.
Thousands of tickets to papal events remain unclaimed in an increasingly secular country even as many of the faithful have expressed joy about his imminent arrival.
The trip is the first state visit by a pope to the U.K., and he will be received by Queen Elizabeth II at her official residence in Scotland, symbolically significant because of the historic divide between the officially Protestant nation and the Catholic Church.
The queen is head of the Church of England, which split acrimoniously from Rome in the 16th century, a division followed by centuries of anti-Catholic sentiment. The visit also coincides with the 450th anniversary of the Reformation in Scotland.
The last papal visit to Britain was by John Paul II in 1982. Benedict's trip to Britain is a state visit because he was invited by the monarch.
After meeting the queen at The Palace of Holyrood House, the pope will take part in a parade through the center of Edinburgh, where police expect up to 100,000 well-wishers to line the streets. The Scottish government plans to fly the Vatican City flag at its headquarters to mark the historic visit.
The Catholic Church has been rocked by a series of sex abuse scandals, from covered-up cases in Boston to a report in Belgium this week that linked at least 13 suicides to the hundreds of victims' harrowing accounts of molestation. The pope has been criticized for his response to the crisis and the fallout from the scandal appears to have dampened enthusiasm for his visit.
There is also strong opposition to Benedict's hard line against homosexuality, abortion and using condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS.
Cardinal Keith O'Brien, leader of Scotland's minority Catholics, admitted that the damage caused by the sex scandals has been considerable.
In a statement, he said the abuse cases have "caused terrible injury to children and young adults, and equally horrible have been the cover-ups, but I think the pope has put strong steps to prevent it from happening. Nobody loses face by saying 'sorry' and 'I'm trying to do better.'"
The start of the trip risked being overshadowed by remarks by one of the pope's advisers, German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who said compared arriving in multicultural London to landing "in a Third World country." He also told a German magazine that an "aggressive atheism" was spreading in Britain.
The British media, expressing outrage, cited the remarks as the latest example of a gaffe-prone papacy. Kasper's office later said he would not be coming due to illness.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, former head of the Catholic Church in England, tried to limit the damage from those comments.
"I'm not really sure why Cardinal Kasper said what he said, he is a good man and a good friend. Perhaps he was having a bad day," he said.
Only 65,000 of the faithful are expected to attend an open air Mass at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow later Thursday, compared to the 100,000 previously expected. At the Mass the pope will be serenaded by Susan Boyle, the "Britain's Got Talent" reality show star who shot to global fame last year.
The bookish pontiff lacks the charisma of his predecessor John Paul II, who pulled in a crowd of 250,000 for Mass at the same Glasgow park.
A beatification event will follow on Sunday for Cardinal John Newman in Birmingham, which will see the 19th-century English philosopher take a step on his way to sainthood.
The estimated 12-million-pound ($18.6-million) cost of the visit, not including security, has been attacked by critics at a time when Britain faces deep budget cuts.
Security for Thursday's events in Scotland alone will cost 1 million pound ($1.55 million), according to the U.K. government. The pope will travel from Edinburgh to Glasgow in a 26-car convoy. More than 1,000 police officers will be deployed in Glasgow and 600 in Edinburgh, and they will be backed up by armed response units.
A number of demonstrations are expected in Edinburgh city center including 70 protesters led by Northern Ireland Protestant leader the Rev. Ian Paisley at the Magdalen Chapel, where John Knox, the leader of the Scottish Reformation, preached.
"We are championing those who have been very, very badly treated by these priests of Rome," Paisley said of the sex abuse scandals.
While some may have been put off by the 20-pound ($31) suggested donation for a ticket to Bellahouston to cover transportation costs, detractors such as the Humanist Society of Scotland believe people are indifferent to the papal visit because of the church scandals and growing secularism.
There are about 850,000 Catholics in Scotland, according to the 2001 U.K. Census, but 27 percent of Scots — about 1.5 million — did not register a religion or said they were atheists.
"We believe that the vast majority of people do not approve of this visit, or the state funding of it," said Tim Maguire of the Humanist Society. "Politicians pay too much heed to the religious vote when in fact the majority is nonreligious."
His organization has placed billboards along the route the pope will take between Edinburgh and Glasgow that read: "Two million Scots are good without God."
Yet at St. Mary's Cathedral in Edinburgh, some worshippers were eagerly preparing for the pope's arrival.
"It is wonderful that the Holy Father is coming to Scotland and I prayed today for good weather," said Mary McManus, 78.
James Ferguson, 72, a retired electrician, acknowledged that the church sex abuse scandals were "sickening."
"(But) what's worse is that opponents of the church have made hay with them and the church's response to them," he said. "In some ways, we are being made to feel foolish about being Catholic and so I hope this visit will make us proud."