The news seems to have leaked out in an odd way. In September, Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown was flying to America for a meeting with President Barack Obama. At least, it was hoped that there would be a meeting. Rumors were spreading that Brown had been snubbed by Obama and wasn’t going to get the top-level chat that the British/US “special relationship” would normally ensure. How to restore Brown’s status? En route to America, Downing Street officials let slip that Brown had pulled off a successful prestige event—Pope Benedict would visit Britain in 2010. And this wouldn’t just be a “pastoral visit” like that of Pope John Paul in 1982, but a full-blown state visit, with a band at the airport, a speech to Parliament, and an overnight stay at Buckingham Palace.
Whether or not it is true that the news was leaked deliberately to restore Prime Ministerial fortunes, it is certainly true that it caught Britain’s bishops, and the Vatican, by surprise. Vincent Nichols, archbishop of Westminster, would have liked to have made the announcement of a papal visit with all the usual trimmings of a press conference and photographs and messages from Rome. Instead, his statement had to allow for the absence of any firm date and the awkwardness of coping with news revealed through a political leak.
“We are encouraged and pleased at the news which has emerged about the possible official visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the UK next year,” read the cautious statement. “We are glad the Holy Father is giving such consideration to the invitations he has received from Her Majesty’s Government, which accord closely to the wishes and requests also expressed by the bishops of England and Wales.”
When Pope John Paul II visited in 1982, it marked the last stages of the Protestant era of British history. Although there were some anti- Catholic demonstrators, coming from sects where the notion of the pope as the Antichrist is still cherished, the demonstrations were out of tune with the public mood and the demonstrators were perceived as oddities. The issues during that papal visit were the Falklands war, then raging in the South Atlantic, and the all too-familiar tensions within modern Western society concerning the Church’s stance on moral issues.
The visit went well. The Pope drew large crowds, met the Queen, and attended a packed ecumenical service at Canterbury Cathedral, where the applause that greeted him as he entered almost drowned out the choir and organ.
So the ground was broken; any future papal visit would be seen as something almost normal. But having a pope arrive on an official state visit will certainly set the seal on the changes that have taken place in Britain over past decades.
When Pope John Paul II died, and millions of people started to flock to Rome for his funeral, it became clear that it was going to be necessary to send a fairly senior Royal to represent Britain. It just wasn’t going to be possible to have Lord Somebody-or-Other politely handling the diplomatic niceties. Thus, at the last minute, there was a hurried postponement of a Royal wedding—Prince Charles was to have married divorcée Camilla Parker- Bowles in a civil ceremony that day— followed by the arrival in Rome of the Prince and the final ending of a 400-year chunk of British religious history. The funeral dominated the British media for days and received hours and hours of TV coverage.
One newspaper asked, “Are we a Protestant nation or not?” The answer, of course, was “not,” but that doesn’t mean the nation is a Catholic one. The current travails of the Church of England are well known. There is some vibrancy in various Evangelical churches and various independent initiatives of a largely Charismatic kind. Catholic numbers, slipping for many years, are now holding steady, possibly due to the arrival of large numbers of Polish people following Poland’s entry into the European Union. But the fastestgrowing religion in Britain is Islam, with new mosques opening regularly, and a strong Islamic presence evident in Britain’s cities, schools, and business and political life.
So how will the 2010 papal visit work? Opposition has immediately come from the militant secularists, the same team that supported advertisements on London’s buses proclaiming “There probably isn’t a God.” Open and emphatic anti-Catholic sentiment no longer comes from Protestant sources. An example of the newer kind came from committed atheist and gay-rights campaigner Matthew Parris, columnist in The Times. When the relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux were brought to Britain this year, he raged:
The casket will be visiting “28 centers of prayer,” including many Roman Catholic cathedrals. How can bishops sanction this paganistic nonsense? I had been wondering whether Richard Dawkins’ critics were right to complain that his atheism was intolerant; whether we atheists were wrong to rage with such certitude about what is really only an absence of belief. But these relics have performed a miracle: they have re-inspired in me a fiery conviction. We non believers must rage, insist, proclaim.
For pity’s sake, closet atheists of Britain, come out! Don’t “respect” this credulous folly! Don’t let the madnesses of these faith minorities go by default! Stop our politicians kowtowing to nutters! Cease the embarrassed muttering about being “don’t knows” on religion, and shout it out. We do know! It isn’t true!
But the relics of St. Thérèse received good coverage from the BBC and in the press generally, and ecumenical interest ranged from the respectful to the warmly friendly. I was asked by the Baptist Times to write a piece from a Catholic perspective explaining saints and relics. The relics were welcomed at York Minster by the Anglicans, and there were ecumenical services at various other places where they were taken.
The problems facing the 2010 papal visit are not in Britain’s historical religious divisions but in the great realities of today. There will certainly be much opposition from those who loathe the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexual ethics. The dedicated homosexual-rights lobbyists can never be at peace, and a papal visit will give opportunities to express all sorts of anger and confusion.
Within the Church, the visit will prove a boost to morale. Numbers at Mass are down since John Paul’s 1982 visit. Even more dramatic is the collapse of Catholic marriages, both in the sliding number of weddings and the rising number of divorces. Both of these figures show a trend that exactly matches that of the nation at large. On the other hand, the numbers of men offering themselves for the priesthood has risen in recent years. Figures for people attending pilgrimages to Lourdes and to Fatima, and for gathering at events at Walsingham and other shrines, continue to be good. And the numbers of people visiting the relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux in October were staggering, literally thousands and thousands of people in Portsmouth, Manchester, Oxford, London, and elsewhere, surpassing all expectations.
Catholic schools continue to be hugely popular, but it’s a commonly recognized fact (and one lamented by many priests) that families choose the schools because they are felt to have higher academic standards and a generally good community spirit rather than because of any strong commitment to the teachings of the Church. Priests find parents hurriedly attending Mass and making themselves busy in the parish as the time comes for registering for a child’s place at a Catholic school; the situation has become a favorite one for jokes and wry comments. In one parish, in an attempt to ensure that parents who claim to be practicing their faith are actually doing so, a priest started insisting that they sign a register upon attending Sunday Mass.
The New Movements in the Church have made some impact, notably Britain’s own home-grown Youth 2000 movement, which drew some 1,000 young people to Walsingham this summer and which has helped to encourage some recruits towards the priesthood and religious life. The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and the Brothers of St. John are busy; both have strong bases in the east end of London. The Faith
Movement has made some impact, especially in the south of England.
But none of this is on a huge scale. The days of the 19th century when the Catholic Church in Britain drew vast numbers of converts every year, building churches and schools in towns and suburbs across the country, are distant.
Which brings us to to John Henry Newman, the great Oxford convert, who spoke of a “Second Spring” of the Catholic faith in England. Pope Benedict XVI is known to be a Newman enthusiast. The writings of the latter hugely influenced the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church which was one of its main fruits.
The announcement of Newman’s beatification brought a rush of speculation as to where it would occur, and the possibility of the Pope presiding at it: would it be in Birmingham? Oxford? It would have to be a venue large enough to accommodate considerable crowds. And there are local loyalties with which to contend. One solution is not to have it in Britain at all but in Rome, where as an internationally renowned theologian Newman has his rightful place at the heart of the Church.
Even if this occurs, however, a papal visit during the beatification year will surely have a strong Newman flavor and include visits to the places central to his life and work. In many ways, John Henry Newman is a saint who makes a good patron for Benedict XVI. Misrepresented and often badly mauled by the media, a man of giant intellect and with a notable prose style, a man whose life was wholly dedicated to the Church— there are parallels between the two lives here.
A papal visit in 2010 could help to reap spiritual fruits and help bring to harvest that “Second Spring.” It will need prayer, faith, and a good measure of courage and sense of initiative. Britain is in a spiritual and cultural mess: a high and rising rate of crime, half of all births taking place outside marriage, a sense of confusion about its old institutions with Parliament racked by scandals, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan exacting a tragic toll, a growing recognition of falling standards in schools, a loss of a sense of community and common values. The Church’s message has never been so badly needed.
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