Pope's 'Astonishing' Visit to Britain

A nun laughs as she chats with a police officer while she waits to see Pope Benedict XVI's popemobile cross Lambeth Bridge in central London Sept. 17.
A nun laughs as she chats with a police officer while she waits to see Pope Benedict XVI's popemobile cross Lambeth Bridge in central London Sept. 17. (photo: CNS photo/Andrew Winning, Reuters)

Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster described the events of yesterday in which the Pope gave addresses in Westminster Hall, Westminster Abbey, and Lambeth Palace as “astonishing.”

It was the first time the Successor of Peter had ever set foot in any of these historic buildings which at any one time have been pillars of Church and State in Britain for the past thousand years.

In his first briefing of the visit to journalists today, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the welcome the Pope received at Westminster Hall and Abbey were “extraordinary”. He added that the Pope was “very impressed” by the richness of the Anglican liturgy in Westminster Abbey. 

The Vatican spokesman said the Holy Father has was “obviously grateful” for the kind hospitality that has been shown him during his four day visit.  Summaries of all of yesterday’s historic speeches can be found here.

Benedict XVI made a second reference on this trip to the sexual abuse scandal today, during his homily during Mass at Westminster Cathedral. He expressed “deep sorrow” for sexual abuse by priests, and called them “unspeakable crimes”. But he also spoke about it in the context of Christ’s suffering which has been imitated through the history of Christian martyrdom.

Some commentators were wondering whether the Pope was equating being a victim of child abuse to being a martyr, but Fr. Lombardi said there was no parallel. Although both clearly involve suffering, they are of “different” kinds, he said.

Fr. Jonathan How, a spokesman for the bishops conference, told me the Pope was simply placing the “humiliation and shame” of Christ in the context of the abuse scandal. “If we feel shamed and humiliated by [the abuse],” he said, “we are only sharing in what the victims and Christ experienced.”

At the briefing with Fr. Lombardi, a journalist pointed out that the Pope looked tired but happy during the visit.  Fr. Lombardi responded by stressing that the Pope is 83 years old, but has a “profound spirit and serenity” on this visit. He said the Holy Father’s attitude on these visits, ones which are preceded by a good deal of controversy, is that they always work out well.

“He is perhaps more in touch with the reality than the media,” he said, adding that the general attitudes of society and the faithful are always more favourable than hostile. Fr. Lombardi said he himself is “not surprised or shocked” by protestors who are marching near Hyde Park this afternoon.

“We know there are groups that criticize and have the right to express their views – something the Pope has said is a positive tradition in the United Kingdom,” he said. “We recognize what the reality is and that large numbers want to meet the Pope.”

Later today, the Pope will visit an old people’s home during which he will probably address issues related to marriage, life and the family. Afterwards he will lead a prayer vigil in Hyde Park on the eve of the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman.