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Pope arrives in Switzerland

Organisers make final preparations ahead of the Pope's arrival Keystone

Pope John Paul II has arrived at the Payerne airforce base where he has been welcomed by three members of the Swiss government led by this year's president, Joseph Deiss.

The Pope will attend a Roman Catholic youth meeting in Bern later on Saturday, in what will be the biggest religious event in the country in 20 years.

The Pope’s first visit to the country since 1984 has been eagerly awaited by Swiss bishops who issued the invitation.

But it has also revealed divisions in the Swiss Roman Catholic Church, sparking a debate about whether the 84-year-old Pontiff is still fit to hold office.

Around 10,000 young people are expected to congregate at Bern’s biggest indoor arena on Saturday for the first-ever national Catholic youth gathering. The highlight will be an appearance by the Pope during the opening ceremony.

Numbers are expected to swell to 50,000 on Sunday when the Pope celebrates Mass at an open-air service on a meadow next to the arena.

The theme for the two-day event is “Get Up!”, a call to young Catholics to stand up for their faith. Saturday’s meeting will explore the theme through music, dance and a series of workshops.

New impulse

Agnell Rickenmann, secretary-general of the Swiss Bishops’ Conference, admitted that organising the event had been a headache, but said he believed all the work would pay off.

“We are very glad that he’s coming,” Rickenmann told swissinfo. “I think it will give Swiss Catholicism a new impulse.”

“But don’t forget, this is first of all a meeting of young people – the first national meeting in Switzerland – and it is a little bit more difficult to organise in Switzerland than in other countries because we have four official languages.”

Advertising materials and documentation had to be translated into the different languages and organisers had to make sure that the choice of entertainment on the Saturday night was representative of the different areas of the country.

Another major task was to cover the estimated SFr2.5 million ($2 million) cost of the event. Some of this will be offset by the SFr50 charge to participants, and from contributions by the Swiss dioceses and Church coffers.

But around SFr500,000 also had to be raised in sponsorship. Major corporate names including Nestlé and Coca-Cola Switzerland have provided some of the funding.

But one week before the Pope’s arrival organisers were reporting a shortfall of SFr150,000.

Rickenmann said that if the deficit could not be met by new sponsorship or donations, the Swiss dioceses would have to contribute more and “bear the burden”.

Security concerns

But if the logistics of staging such a big event have proved a headache for the organisers, the task of ensuring security has been no less of an undertaking for the city of Bern.

The Pope survived one assassination attempt in 1981 and the United States has warned in the past that he is a “possible” terrorist target.

Police are also faced with the task of ensuring the safety of the tens of thousands of visitors to the event.

“It’s a huge challenge,” said Peter Theilkäs of the city of Bern’s police department, which is primarily responsible for security during the two-day visit.

Bern’s cantonal police department and the federal authorities will also be drafted in to provide additional support.

Theilkäs informed the media that over 1,000 officers and police marksmen, members of anti-terror units as well as medical workers would be deployed in what is set to be one of the biggest police operations ever to be mounted in the country.

In addition, a strict no-fly zone will be enforced over the city of Bern for the duration of the visit.


The unexpected news that the increasingly frail Pope would go ahead with the visit to Bern was not met with universal delight in Switzerland.

A group of 40 theologians from German-speaking Switzerland published an open letter in mid-May calling on the Pope to retire, while a recent survey showed that 74 per cent of Swiss believe it is time for him to step down.

An attempt to involve Switzerland’s Protestants in the religious event failed when the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches declined an invitation to attend the Mass.

A spokesman said the event was not truly ecumenical, and pointed to the fact that non-Catholics could not participate in Communion.

Rickenmann conceded that while the bishops and young Catholics were delighted at the Pontiff’s acceptance of the invitation to visit Switzerland, “not everyone has the same relationship to the Holy Father”.

“Evidently we also have priests who are perhaps a little more critical [of the Pope],” he told swissinfo.

“But I still think the fundamental sentiment is a very positive one.”

swissinfo, Morven McLean

Programme of the Pope’s visit:

Saturday June 5 (youth meeting):
Early morning – participants arrive in Bern.
From 1100 – Participants gather at four sites in Bern and walk to the Bern arena.
From 1600 – Groups arrive at the arena where a Christian band gives a live performance of Hip-Hop, rap and Latino music.
1700 – Opening ceremony including dance numbers, video clips and singing.
Approximately 1815 – Pope addresses the audience.
1930-2200 –Youth party with evening meal and workshops.
2230 – “Streetlight” musical performed by Genrosso.

Sunday June 6 (Mass):
From 0630 – breakfast
0700 – Gates to the meadow open for visitors to the Mass.
0800 – Prayers in the Bern arena.
1000 – Religious service including Mass jointly officiated by the Pope (open to all).

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR