This year will see the 40th anniversary of the first ever visit of a pope to England, Scotland, and Wales. Given the complicated history of the Catholic Church in Britain, it is truly remarkable that the anniversary somehow doesn’t seem remarkable at all. The May 28-June 2, 1982 joyful visit of Pope – now Saint – John Paul II was followed by another papal visit, this time at the express invitation of HM the Queen, and Pope Benedict XVI arrived in September 2010 to be greeted by the Sovereign at her palace in Scotland and address a great gathering at the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.
History rolls on, and in this anniversary year we can note how the papal visits have been embedded into our national story and how ordinary it all seems. Stone slabs at Westminster Cathedral – one at the foot of the sanctuary, another at the main door – commemorate the two visits. The vision of religious freedom affirmed by Pope Benedict in his magnificent address at Westminster is recognized as one that brilliantly articulates the authentic teaching of the Church and affirms the truth recognized by all who seek genuine goodwill.
St John Paul’s visit could have been so easily derailed. Britain was at war. The Falklands crisis had erupted and the Royal Navy made its way to the South Atlantic to confront Argentinian claims. Some magnificent diplomacy on all sides achieved something that might have seemed impossible: the Pope made a last-minute visit to Argentina before traveling to London, so that Catholics in both countries could hear a genuine message of peace from the successor of St Peter. The visit to Britain thus had a pastoral quality, with nothing triumphalistic about it: it was not a time for scoring points.
When I look back at my younger self, cheering among the crowd at Gatwick Airport as the papal plane landed and watching on television as the Pope went to Buckingham Palace for tea, I am amazed at how little I realized about the significance of it all. Some of us at that time simply saw the pope as someone who should say things we wanted to hear – about the wrongfulness of abortion, for example – within a sort of zone of this-is-what-popes-should-do. We didn’t see things with the eye of history; perhaps that’s simply something that is acquired with age.
We liked being indignant about things, and so were on the lookout for anything we thought was too trendy or “wishy-washy” – though when I was urged to share indignation about Pope John Paul II being open and friendly with the Anglicans at Canterbury I found that on the contrary it all looked rather valuable. Now, four decades on and with the creation of the Ordinariate by Benedict XVI it all looks prophetic: Anglicans can now come into full communion with the Catholic Church, bringing their liturgical and other traditions with them. Upon arriving at Gatwick Airport, John Paul II sounded a central theme of his visit: reconciliation:
At this moment of history, we stand in urgent need of reconciliation: reconciliation between nations and between peoples of different races and cultures; reconciliation of man within himself and with nature; reconciliation among people of different social conditions and beliefs, reconciliation among Christians. In a world scarred by hatred and injustice and divided by violence and oppression, the Church desires to be a spokesman for the vital task of fostering harmony and unity and forging new bonds of understanding and brotherhood.
St John Paul had been Pope for just four years at the time of that history-making visit. He had already survived two assassination attempts, one in St Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981, and another a year later on May 12, 1982, at Fatima where he went to give thanks and was attacked by a schismatic priest. He was already becoming the world’s voice of conscience, and over the next years his magnificent encyclicals and other writings (and many addresses) would ring out the truth about the glory of God and the dignity of man.
And those years were often thrilling. John Paul II had yet to achieve the quite extraordinary invention of World Youth Day. In 1982 great gatherings of that sort were still seen as reserved for political rallies or popular music festivals, but he would bring about the astonishing sight of vast crowds of young people from across the world kneeling in silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament or lining up before relays of confessors to receive absolution. He would bring about dramatic change in Eastern Europe. In 1982 that was already on the way, as his 1979 pilgrimage to his native Poland had set in train the events that would lead to the formation of Solidarity, and eventual freedom from the Communism that had been imposed since 1945.
Reflecting on the 1982 papal visit forty years later, I see the many changes in Britain since that time. There is a great deal that is very bad: continued destruction of babies in their mothers’ wombs, plus massive publicly-funded promotion of bizarre notions of confused sexual identity, and a general withering of standards of excellence in academia. And there is a new surge of constant sniping at cherished values and symbols of historical achievement, and of course an increase of misery as marriages and families collapse under all sorts of pressures.
Is there anything good to note? Not much: the Ordinariate, as mentioned, some new evangelistic initiatives (back in 1982 no one could have imagined a great National Eucharistic Congress on the scale that we had in 2018), and the fact that Christianity here isn’t dead, as I remember being repeatedly told, when younger, would be the case by the 21st century.
“The most annoying thing about you, Joanna,” someone expostulated recently, “is that, especially about the Church, you are always wanting to see the good things.” I think, looking back, it is because, while I was still comparatively young, I encountered the message of St John Paul II.
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