Pope Benedict XVI confirmed Monday he would visit Britain this year, a trip that follows his move to welcome into the Roman Catholic Church groups of Anglicans upset over the ordination of gays and women.
No dates were announced. Officials at both the Vatican and in Britain say the visit is planned for September.
Benedict confirmed his plans in a speech to visiting British bishops, saying he hoped the trip would "strengthen and confirm" the faith of Catholics across the country.
He urged the bishops to help disaffected Anglicans who want to convert to Catholicism. "I am convinced that, if given a warm and openhearted welcome, such groups will be a blessing for the entire Church," he said.
Making conversion easier
The Vatican announced last October it was making it easier for Anglicans to become Catholic, essentially creating independent dioceses for converts who could still maintain certain Anglican traditions, including having married priests.
The unprecedented invitation shocked Anglicans and Catholics alike — particularly in Britain, seat of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Neither Williams nor Britain's Catholic bishops were consulted by the Vatican, and they were only advised of the new rules shortly before they became public. Williams pointedly raised his concerns about the way in which the announcement was made when he met with the pope last November.
"Clearly many Anglicans, myself included, felt that it put us in an awkward position," Williams told Vatican Radio at the time.
The Vatican has said it was merely responding to the many Anglican requests to join the Catholic Church and has denied it was poaching for converts.
But the move strained Catholic-Anglican relations and is sure to affect Williams' 77-million Anglican Communion, which was already on the verge of schism over homosexuality and women's ordination issues before the Vatican intervened.
Anglicans split from Rome in 1534 when English King Henry VIII was refused a marriage annulment. For decades, the two churches have held discussions on trying to reunite, part of the Vatican's long-term effort to unify all Christians.
Divide between liberals, traditionalists
But differences remain, and the ecumenical talks were going nowhere as divisions mounted between liberals and traditionalists within the Anglican Communion.
Benedict's trip is expected to focus on Cardinal John Henry Newman, the most famous Anglican convert, who has been cleared for beatification, the first major step toward possible sainthood. The 19th century British theologian is a hero to many Anglicans and Catholics alike, making him possibly a figure of bridge-building.
Newman was one of the founders of the so-called Oxford Movement of the 1830s, which sought to revive certain Roman Catholic doctrines in the Church of England. Williams has said Benedict would do well to refer to Newman's overall Christian message, not just his conversion, if he wants to be well received by all of British society during his trip — the first papal visit to Britain since Pope John Paul II visited in 1982.
"Newman of course is not just the property of the Roman Catholic Church," Williams said in the Vatican Radio interview. "He was one of the great public intellectuals and literary figures of the 19th century."
Williams stressed that even after Newman converted to Catholicism, "his work on education, his work as a philosopher, his literary production, his preaching continued to be addressed to the broader Christian concerns in a society that was already feeling the effects of a kind of secularization."
"Now that's the kind of Newman we want to hear more about," he said.