Never mind the aggressive secularists, Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain also generated some oldfashioned Protestant hostility. On Friday, September 17, an odd collection of evangelicals gathered outside Westminster Abbey in London to denounce the presence of the “Roman imposter on British soil,” who at that very moment was talking to Dr. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, at Lambeth Palace on the other side of the Thames.
The protesting Protestants carried anti-Catholic banners; I saw one sign calling the Pope the “anti-Christ.” They waved their offensive placards at the passing crowds of Catholic pilgrims. A thin man with wild eyes stood on a nearby pedestal. “He comes here, this Pope, as if he were himself a God,” he cried, lifting up a copy of the Bible in the air. “But he comes here not to save us, but to lead us from the truth of Christ.” He was foaming at the mouth, literally: thick flecks of spittle were slipping from his lips.
Another, smaller man with spectacles moved about the crowd looking for Catholics to shout at. “William Tyndale translated the Bible into English and the Roman Catholic Church murdered him for it!” he raged. An elderly, pious-looking woman asked him to be quiet. “I’m just telling you a little history,” he insisted, standing not very far from where the Catholic St. Thomas More was killed for his faith. “You would do well to listen.”
Some 30 yards away, “Christian” gay-rights protestors stood holding rainbow flags. They passed around pamphlets which said: “God Loves ALL his Creatures.” They exchanged nervous glances with the angry Calvinists. Both groups knew that they weren’t supposed to like each other. But they had bonded, somehow, through their shared antipathy towards the Pope. This was a perverse moment of ecumenism—not quite the “Christian unity” that Pope Benedict and the archbishop of Canterbury were discussing at Lambeth Palace.
But these ridiculous scenes by no means made up the whole picture of the papal visit, which was—it is now widely agreed—a historic triumph for the Roman Catholic Church in Britain. From his arrival in Scotland on September 16 to the magnificent Beatification Mass for Cardinal John Henry Newman in Crofton Park, Birmingham on Sunday the 19th, Pope Benedict XVI’s presence in the United Kingdom prompted an outburst of spiritual joy across the country. After the long and fractious build-up to the trip, during which celebrity atheists and anti-Catholics poured scorn on the Vatican and the Church at large, the overwhelming success of Pope Benedict’s pilgrimage has been understood as a sign of the residual strength of Christian faith in a largely secularized society.
In Scotland, a country once divided by sectarian bitterness, the enthusiasm for the Pontiff was astonishing. Sixtyfi ve thousand pilgrims gathered for the open-air Mass in Bellahouston Park, near Glasgow. They stood in loyal solemnity for their Pope. Even the BBC’s commentators and journalists, so often accused of harboring a left-liberal bias against Roman Catholicism, seemed to get swept up in the atmosphere. “There’s a palpable sense of real excitement here,” gushed Huw Edwards on a BBC news broadcast. “I’ve never seen so many cameras and mobile phones flashing in my life.” Everybody seemed to agree that the Mass, set to music by the Catholic composer James MacMillan, was magnificent.
In his homily, the Pope showed his sensitivity to the problems of Scott ish society. He issued an appeal to the young people gathered before him. “There are many temptations placed before you every day—drugs, money, sex, pornography, alcohol—which the world tells you will bring you happiness,” he told them. “Yet these things are destructive and divisive. There is only one thing which lasts: the love of Jesus Christ personally for each one of you. Search for him, know him, and love him, and he will set you free from slavery to the glittering but superficial existence frequently proposed by today’s society.”
Earlier that day, in his remarks to Queen Elizabeth II at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, the Pope had introduced what was to become the central message of his visit: that western society not detach itself from the Christian roots of its civilization. “The evangelization of culture is all the more important in our times,” he said, “when a ‘dictatorship of relativism’ threatens to obscure the unchanging truth about man’s nature, his destiny, and his ultimate good.”
His words were familiar to those who knew about Benedict’s life and thought. But his warning against “aggressive forms of secularism” had a special resonance for many British Catholics following the barrage of anti-Christian sentiment that had dominated the news in the days preceding his arrival. It was another theme that he would develop during the rest of the visit.
The next day, Pope Benedict spoke at Westminster Abbey in London and to British political leaders in Westminster Hall. Commentators were quick to appreciate the dramatic significance of having a Roman Pope speak at these two historic sites. Andrew Brown, an agnostic writing for the Guardian, called it “the end of the British empire”:
In all the four centuries from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II, England has been defined as a Protestant nation. The Catholics were the Other; sometimes violent terrorists and rebels, sometimes merely dirty immigrants. The sense that this was a nation specially blessed by God arose from a deeply anti-Catholic reading of the Bible. Yet it was central to English self-understanding when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1952 [sic], and swore to uphold the Protestant religion by law established. For all of those 400 or so years it would have been unthinkable that a pope should stand in Westminster Hall and praise Sir Thomas More, who died to defend the pope’s sovereignty against the king’s. Rebellion against the pope was the foundational act of English power. And now the power is gone, and perhaps the rebellion has gone, too.
Brown is right, of course. British identity was to a large extent forged in a spirit of anti- Catholicism, and the idea of the British establishment giving a pope a standing ovation in Westminster Abbey and Westminster Hall would be enough to make our puritanical ancestors turn in their modest graves. But rather than seeing Pope Benedict’s speech to Westminster as some sort of epic rupture from the past, it was also possible to recognize it as a moment of historic healing and even restoration. England was a Catholic country before the Reformation, after all. As Damian Thompson, Britain’s leading Catholic blogger, pointed out:
If you want evidence of the self-confidence of our Catholic national identity, look no further than Westminster Abbey and Westminster Hall. For at least the first 500 years of its existence—we can’t be sure when it was founded—the Abbey was obedient to Benedict’s predecessors. So for the Pope to enter it today was an affirmation of its own “foundational act.” Not for nothing did he point out in his address that the church was dedicated to St. Peter.
But Pope Benedict’s tone and language was not triumphalist. He used his speeches in Westminster as an opportunity not to score theological points, but to reiterate his universal message. He stressed the essential and fundamental relationship between faith and reason. He did express concern at the “marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place,” but only after he had courteously praised Britain’s politicians for their nation’s history of tolerance, common law, and parliamentary democracy.
“If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident—herein lies the real challenge for democracy.”
“Religion…is not a problem for legislators to solve,” Benedict added, rather pointedly, “but a vital contribution to national life.” He left Westminster Hall to long and loud applause. The jeers of the angry anti-Catholic Protestants and their new gay friends outside the Abbey went almost unnoticed.
For most London-based Catholics, the real high-point of the Pope’s visit was the next day, Saturday, September 18. The morning Mass in Westminster Cathedral—the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Most Precious Blood—was heralded as a great success. Even the most demandingly conservative liturgical experts were thrilled by the use of the Roman Canon and the Credo from the Missa de Angelis.
The Pope’s homily attracted a lot of media attention because he apologized to the victims of the clerical child abuse for the “unspeakable crimes” committed against them. But Catholic observers were quick to point out that the sermon also reflected profoundly on the mystery and theology of the Eucharist.
Later that day, some 80,000 pilgrims crammed into Hyde Park for a Vigil of Prayer with the Holy Father. The crowd was an impressive mixture of peoples, including Africans, Poles, Italians, Spaniards, Filipinos, and Germans.
The atmosphere was remarkable, though some Catholics considered the pre-vigil entertainment absurd. There was some embarrassing contemporary dance, covering—according to the official program—“the area of faith, personal development, and well-being.” The crowd was also subjected to some painful Christian rap music and personal testimonies from troubled people who had been helped by the Catholic Church. It was all a bit unorthodox for some. “This is wicked,” one Catholic grumbled, “and I don’t mean good.”
But nobody wanted to be too cynical. It was widely agreed that this should be a momentous and happy event for the Church. It was not the time to be stuffy. Moreover, the vigil organizers sensibly ensured that the more progressive elements were finished long before Pope Benedict’s arrival. By the time Pope Benedict had entered the park, the music had been changed to Handel.
For the vigil itself, a great calm descended on the enormous crowd, interrupted only occasionally by enthusiastic chants of “Bene-dett-o!” There were, reportedly, 9,000 anti-Pope protestors outside Hyde Park, but they could not be seen or heard.
The Pope delivered another immensely powerful address. “The price to be paid for fidelity to the Gospel is no longer being hanged, drawn, and quartered,” he said, in another reference to the suffering of the Reformation. “But it often involves being dismissed out of hand, ridiculed, or parodied.”
He drew on the life and works of Cardinal John Henry Newman to urge his audience to be more energetic and committ ed in their faith. “Without the life of prayer,” he said, “without the interior transformation which takes place through the grace of the sacraments, we cannot, in Newman’s words, ‘radiate Christ’; we become just another ‘clashing symbol’ in a world filled with growing noise and confusion, filled with false paths leading only to heartbreak and illusion.”
Afterwards the crowd dispersed easily into the dark streets of London. By the time of the Newman’s beatifi cation the next day, it was widely acknowledged that Pope Benedict’s visit had been a barnstorming success. Even secularist journalists admitt ed that he “had not put a foot wrong” throughout. The Beatification Mass at Crofton Park, which drew another enormous crowd, only confirmed the impression of a Catholic triumph.
Across Britain, there was a sense of amazement—even puzzlement—that the Pontiff , with his softly-spoken, heavily-accented English, could have triggered such a positive response from the British people. How could it have been so, when the media’s narrative leading up to the Pope’s arrival had focused so heavily on pedophile priests and Catholic unpopularity? The answer is obvious. A huge number of British people—many of them non-Christian—had felt that the Church was being unfairly caricatured on the airwaves and in print. They were delighted to be given a chance to show their solidarity to the Pope ahead of their loyalty to the culturally secular, media-dominated bubble in which they live.
As he wished Pope Benedict farewell, David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, said that the Pontiff had “challenged the whole country to sit up and think.” Indeed he had. And by presenting an intellectually coherent and profound vision of the Catholic faith, the Pope had undermined the central assumption of anti-Catholic prejudice—that those who follow the Pope are backward and brainwashed. As Pope Benedict XVI himself put it to the bishops of England and Wales shortly before boarding his Alitalia flight back to Rome, “it has become clear to me how deep a thirst there is among the British people for the Good News of Jesus Christ.”
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