Page last updated at 01:00 GMT, Thursday, 19 February 2009

Vatican visit for Gordon Brown

By David Willey
BBC Vatican correspondent

Gordon Brown shakes hands with the Pope

The Vatican Newspaper L'Osservatore Romano carries an unusual editorial on its front page.

It's an article on the global economic crisis signed by Britain's prime minister, Gordon Brown.

Mr Brown will be received in private audience by Pope Benedict at the Vatican later. The subject of their talks - the importance of keeping up the flow of aid to poor countries in the developing world.

"From Rio to Rome, and from London to Lagos," Mr Brown writes, "we are confronted by one of the greatest economic challenges of our generation."

The global crisis is having an impact on the poorest people in Africa, Asia and elsewhere, the prime minister writes.

"It means hunger for millions more people, less education, and fewer health services.

This is tangible proof of the common commitment of the Holy See and the United Kingdom in favour of international development
Gordon Brown

"I know that the Catholic Church and His Holiness share these worries," Mr Brown continues.

"It is our common duty to ensure that the needs of the poorest countries are not regarded as an after thought, added as a moral obligation or out of a sense of guilt."

Mr Brown praises the Pope for having been one of the first subscribers to his International Finance Facility Bonds - a fund set up three years ago to provide immunisation for millions of children in the developing world.

"This is tangible proof of the common commitment of the Holy See and the United Kingdom in favour of international development.

"Thanks to this bond more than $1.6bn (1.1bn) has been subscribed, and 500 million children will have been vaccinated between 2006 and 2011," Mr Brown concluded.

Economic issues

Mr Brown's visit to the Vatican will be the fourth by a British prime minister to the Vatican in six years. During the previous three decades there had been only a single visit by a British premier to the Holy See - that of Margaret Thatcher.

Unlike the Vatican's relations with many other countries in Europe with a significant Catholic population - usually governed by a treaty or religious concordat setting out reciprocal rights and duties - British/Vatican relations are practical and focused on very tangible issues, such as development aid.

The Catholic Church with its large number of missionaries operating in developing countries, providing health services and education, is particularly well informed on poverty issues in Africa and Asia.

Pope Benedict XVI
Mr Brown will discuss economic issues with Pope Benedict

So there is a common interest in economic issues between London and the Vatican.

However religious matters - including interfaith dialogue - are also of interest to the two leaders. On a previous visit Mr Bown presented the Pope with a book containing sermons written by his father, a minister in the Church of the Scotland.

The Pope is about to announce the appointment of a new Archbishop of Westminster to replace Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, who has already exceeded the mandatory retirement age of 75.

A final decision from a list of three candidates drawn up by the Papal envoy to Britain is about to be made.

Far-reaching influence

Thus an increasingly secular Britain still has common interests with the world's oldest international organisation.

The Holy See is a unique hybrid - part sovereign state and part religion. It has diplomatic relations with 176 countries.

The king of England first appointed a resident ambassador to the Holy See in Rome as early as 1479, but relations were broken less than a century later at the time of the Reformation. They were not fully restored until 1914.

The emphasis and objectives of Britain's relations with the Pope in Rome change from one generation to another.

Although physically tiny, the Vatican State's global reach touches one sixth of the world's population.

And the Vatican's charitable arm, Caritas Internationalis, a federation of 162 Catholic Aid Agencies, is one of the world's largest development bodies both in terms of personnel and the amount of money it spends.

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