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BY EDWARD PENTIN, ROME CORRESPONDENT
“Pope Benedict’s declarations over the past few days have been remarkable and, in modern Britain, virtually unprecedented,” writes English columnist Stephen Glover in today’s Daily Mail. “They were delivered in the calmest, meekest and least ranting way possible, and yet they carried a great authority that largely comes, I think, from the Pope’s evident goodness as well as from the dignity of his office. Even hard-hearted cynics and skeptics could not fail to listen.”
“A very successful visit” was the general consensus in the British press this morning after Pope Benedict XVI ended his four-day state visit to Britain.
His presence brought out an estimated 500,000 people in Scotland and England as well as countless others who heard his messages in the media and on the Internet. It defied predictions and vastly exceeded expectations.
The government and the Vatican were particularly delighted with how well it had gone. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said it had been a “wonderful visit” and, above all, a “spiritual success.”
Crowd numbers were far larger than any protests (200,000 on the streets of London on Sept. 18 compared to around 5,000 who took part in a march that day), but the Vatican doesn’t judge success by numbers. Father Lombardi said the Pope felt it was a success because “many, many people listened with profound interest to what he had to say.”
Benedict XVI began his trip by telling Queen Elizabeth II of his concerns over “aggressive forms of secularism,” but he ended it on a message of hope: Britons, he said, have a “deep thirst” for the message of Christianity, even if the country is submerged in a “highly secularized environment.” He constantly warned of the excesses of secularism and the perils of “atheist extremism” yet reminded the country of its deep Christian roots thanks to which so much good has been achieved by its people in the course of history.
Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron noted in his farewell address that the messages Benedict had delivered to the country had made it “sit up and think.” He gave strong assurances that faith “has been and always will be” part of the fabric of British society.
An important factor in the visit’s success was the chance for the British people to see what the Pope was really like, as opposed to his media-concocted image. They were won over by his shyness, deep humility and childlike innocence — as many in the Vatican predicted they would be. But they were also impressed by his courage and his willingness to speak his mind.
And perhaps more than on any other papal visit, he comprehensively addressed the sexual-abuse scandal, first referring to his “shock” and “sadness” on hearing that some priests had abused children, then voicing his “deep sorrow” over the “unspeakable crime” of pedophilia by clergy, and finally meeting five Britons who had suffered such abuse. He also called for better safety measures for children in schools and urged the Church in Britain, which over the past decade has handled the scandal well, to share its expertise.
This was a truly historic visit designed to help bring reconciliation between Church and state and between Catholics and Anglicans. Half of all the nation’s parliamentarians turned out for the Pope’s speech in Westminster Hall, where St. Thomas More, the patron saint of politicians, was tried and condemned in 1535. The Pope’s presence in the hall was a powerful reminder that no matter how much the Church might be marginalized or persecuted somehow she finds a way of returning.
But the Holy Father expressed his concern at the modern secular “marginalization” of religion in society, reminding them that religion is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a “vital contributor” to the national conversation.
With the Church of England, the exchanges were remarkably friendly despite relations having reached their lowest ebb in recent times. The Pope also reached out to interreligious leaders, and engaged teachers and young people, urging the latter not to follow a “celebrity culture” but to above all enter into a relationship with God and pursue holiness.
He also spoke from the heart to elderly people, stressing the importance of life from conception until natural death, telling them that ever-longer lives offer an opportunity to remember in prayer those “whom we have cherished in this life.”
The Holy Father called Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, whom he specifically came to England to beatify, a “great son of England,” recalling how he showed his priestly compassion to the poor, sick and imprisoned, and stressing his broad and not utilitarian vision for education.
The visit was also one of historic firsts, which, above all, signified a new chapter for the Church in this historically Protestant country, one in which a line was finally drawn under the sectarian and bloody disputes of the past.
How much this visit will affect the country in the long term remains the subject of debate. Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien, the archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, has spoken of a “Benedict bounce” and a hoped-for growth in vocations.
But for the Catholic lay faithful and Britons who value the Church’s teaching and Christian principles — evidently many more than the media tends to convey — the Holy Father’s visit was a much needed and very welcome “shot in the arm” after years of encroaching secularist intolerance.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.