“It couldn’t have gone better,” said a senior government official as he boarded the plane from Glasgow to London. “Everything went exactly as planned.”
The first and very full day of Pope Benedict XVI’s much anticipated state visit to the United Kingdom has ended, and he is currently residing at the apostolic nunciature in Wimbledon, south London.
He landed at Edinburgh, Scotland, airport shortly before 10:30am Sept. 16 and faced a blustery and chilly wind. But the sun was also shining, and the Pope looked rested, at peace and happy as he came off the papal plane.
Speaking to journalists on the papal flight, he spoke of his “shock” and “sadness” that priests could abuse children. “How a man who has done this and said this may also fall into this perversion is difficult to understand,” he said. “It is a great sadness, a sadness that even the authority of the Church has not been sufficiently vigilant and not fast or decided enough in taking the necessary measures. Because of all of this, we are in a time of repentance, humility and renewed sincerity.”
Regarding Britain, he noted its history of anti-Catholicism, but stressed it is also a country “with a great history of tolerance.” He said this made him sure of a positive reception from “Catholics, from believers in general, and attention from those who seek, as we move forward in our time, mutual respect and tolerance.”
Almost defiantly, he added: “Where there is anti-Catholicism I will go forward with great courage and joy.”
And that he did. The Pope was smiling constantly as he met Queen Elizabeth II and toured the Royal Palace of Holyroodhouse. His speech after the queen received him in private audience also set the mood for this truly historic visit, and contained themes that will doubtless be repeated over the next three days.
The Pope is in Britain essentially as a man of reconciliation, to bring the Church and state and their joint Christian heritage closer together. It is also a visit that aims to further the path towards Christian unity. He spoke movingly of Britain’s contribution to the world, stressing that the good the nation has achieved owes itself to the country’s “deep Christian roots.” He praised Britain’s resistance to Nazi tyranny, its achievements in reaching peace in Northern Ireland, and the country’s “key role” politically and economically on the international stage.
But he also criticized “aggressive secularism,” and warned of its dangers. “As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a reductive vision of the person and his destiny,” he said. It was an unveiled matching of radical atheism with the tyrannies of the past, something to which the Pope, who suffered as a child under the Nazis, is particularly sensitive.
He also directed a few words at the country’s media that has often been particularly hostile to this visit, and to the Holy Father personally.
“The British media have a graver responsibility than most and a greater opportunity to promote the peace of nations, the integral development of peoples and the spread of authentic human rights,” he said.
Queen Elizabeth is also well aware of the Pope’s benevolent intentions on this trip. In her speech, Elizabeth II, who is also the supreme governor of the Anglican Church of England, noted that Benedict’s presence “reminds us of our common Christian heritage” and the Catholic Church’s contribution to good in the world. She also stressed the importance of dialogue and that Britain and the Pope “stand united” in the conviction that “religions can never become vehicles of hatred.”
A reception and a trip in the popemobile through the streets of Edinburgh followed, with what the police estimate were 100,000 people lining the streets of Edinburgh and cheering him on. Later he celebrated Mass in front of a very lively crowd of tens of thousands of pilgrims who had gathered at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. The festive and warm atmosphere surprised many who were anticipating a low turnout.
“It’s wonderful, and we as Scots feel very privileged that the Pope has come here,” said pilgrim Alice Boyle, who was also at the same venue when John Paul II visited in 1982. “The atmosphere is as good as it was then.”
Most cast aside the protests and controversies over the visit. “They’re given too much airtime, and no one here pays attention to them,” said pilgrim Tom Emans, although he added that his non-Catholic friends were indifferent to the visit, and some quite hostile to it.
In his homily, the Holy Father stressed the importance of Christian evangelization, saying it “is all the more important” at a time “when a “‘dictatorship of relativism’ threatens to obscure the unchanging truth about man’s nature, his destiny and his ultimate good.” He noted that some want to exclude religious belief from public discourse, but he added that religion is, in fact, “a guarantee of authentic liberty and respect, leading us to look upon every person as a brother or sister.”
He also had words for the young: “There are many temptations placed before you every day — drugs, money, sex, pornography, alcohol — which the world tells you will bring you happiness, yet these things are destructive and divisive.” He added, “There is only one thing which lasts: the love of Jesus Christ personally for each one of you.”
After Mass, the Pope was driven in a motorcade to Glasgow Airport and a flight to London after a very full schedule. Another historic day awaits him tomorrow, one in which he’ll deliver a speech in the heart of Westminster, the place where St. Thomas More, the patron saint of politicians, was tried and condemned by King Henry VIII for holding to Christian principles in the face of state opposition.
For this reason, and the overall Catholic and state symbolism of the venue, it’s being billed as one of the most important addresses of his pontificate.
Edward Pentin filed this report from London.