From the editor’s desk
Visit lays a new foundation25 September 2010
To say of Pope Benedict XVI that “he came, he saw, he conquered” would be true, even spectacularly so – but still only part of the truth. For he was conquered too during his state visit to Britain, as he seemed to admit in his Wednesday general audience this week when he spoke of “the intense and very beautiful four days” in which he found the Christian faith strong in every level of society.
The visit had been preceded by vehement and sometimes malicious personal attacks, and while Pope Benedict spoke politely during the plane trip from Rome of Britain as a tolerant society, there was a nervousness in the Vatican about what was perceived as its aggressive secularism – as Cardinal Walter Kasper so dramatically articulated in a German magazine just before the visit.
What the Pope and his entourage actually found is well reflected in the figures confirmed by the Metropolitan Police after Saturday’s events in London. The enthusiastic crowds who lined the streets to watch him pass on his way down the flag-lined Mall grew to 200,000 while there were 6,000 on the anti-papal march to Downing Street, although the organisers claimed that it was several times that figure. Even those parts of the national media that had been most critical of the visit beforehand, had changed their tune by the time he left.
The Pope’s response to Britain has been greatly influenced by Britain’s response to him and that was due in no small part to his preparation for the visit, as well as his demeanour. While there had been apprehension about the country, Pope Benedict turned his formidable intellect to the question of what makes Britain tick, and the subtle and complex nuances of British society and history were both understood and appreciated and in many respects applauded. It was recognition of this that earned his address in Westminster Hall, arguably the centre piece of the entire visit, such a warm reception. The questions he raised were real and telling, and stood at the heart of political debate. He was asking for a new and constructive way for faith and secular society to work together, which he called a conversation. It struck the right note. It threatened nobody’s rights and privileges. It was plausible, even, to begin to see how the Pope might take Britain as a template for the rest of Europe, as to how faith and reason, Church and State, secularism and religion, might after all be good for one another.
At the Hyde Park rally British Catholicism set out its stall, saying simply, “Here we are, this is what we do.” It displayed its diversity, its contributions to the common good through its care for disabled and elderly people and for the education and welfare for young people, its inclusive concern for immigrants, strangers and refugees, its commitment to international development and to protecting the environment. This is precisely what the Pope, writing as Cardinal Ratzinger, once called a “creative minority”; and it is, as Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks said afterwards, a display of post-Constantinian Catholicism that eschews political power in order to stand, as the prophets of old had stood, alongside the powerless.
What happens locally also happens internationally. The Pope’s visit to Britain came on the eve of the summit in New York where world leaders are assembled to discuss progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a project to which successive British governments (and successive Popes) have been fully committed. Britain is already one of the largest sources of international aid and development, proportionately larger than any other G8 nation, and will be the first of that group to reach the longstanding target 0.7 per cent of GDP, in 2013. Italy managed only 0.15 per cent. Those same British Governments have recognised in the Holy See a key partner on the international stage on issues such as the MDGs, not because of wealth or might but because of its wisdom and influence. Pope Benedict said at his general audience on Wednesday that the state visit marked an important new phase in relations between Britain and the Holy See. Those relations matter not just to the people of Britain but to the poor of the world for whom the MDGs are designed to help secure a safer, sustainable and better educated future.
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