Pope springs a surprise, and so does Britain
A Vatican veteran’s analysisRobert Mickens
- 25 September 2010
Our Rome correspondent joined the papal flight to Edinburgh as a member of the Vatican press corps, followed Pope Benedict throughout his journey, and rejoined him on the plane from Birmingham back to Rome. Here he assesses a journey that made many on both sides re-evaluate
Read the full text of the Pope’s speeches
In pictures: the historic four-day visit
You could feel the sense of jubilation among the members of Pope Benedict XVI’s entourage on Sunday evening as they bounded up the steps of their Alitalia jet in Birmingham and headed back to Rome. The Vatican churchmen had clearly judged the four-day papal visit to Britain a great triumph. And they seemed to savour it even more than the four-course meal that awaited them on board, which included freshly baked pasta alla Norma, chilled truffle-encrusted roast veal and copious amounts of wine.
The nearly 70 journalists who were enjoying the same spread in the back of the Pope’s plane could not begrudge them their festive mood. “It went better than anyone could have expected,” said the BBC’s David Willey, the senior member of our group. “This did more to boost the Pope’s image than 10 beautifully written encyclicals could have ever done,” said another veteran reporter, glass in hand.
Those same journalists had been singing a different tune – a dirge, actually – right up to the day the “controversial” visit began on 16 September. Many of our number had written gloomy forecasts of a disaster waiting to happen. Warnings of protests, smallish crowds and widespread apathy dominated the pre-visit coverage. Then on the eve of the Pope’s departure, the British media dropped a bombshell. Journalists revealed that the Vatican’s former chief ecumenist, Cardinal Walter Kasper, had described the UK as a “Third World country” in an interview with a German news magazine, and as a place dominated by “aggressive secularists”. The cardinal, who was to have joined the papal entourage for the trip, was suddenly and mysteriously staying back in Rome, officially because he was suffering from gout. The Vatican spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, quickly tried to smooth over his gaffe, which many feared was probably just the first of a series of mishaps that could be expected during the papal visit. The spokesman said the cardinal’s remarks were taken out of context, insisting that he really meant to say that the UK was a multicultural and pluralistic nation.
Meanwhile, a number of Vatican-friendly papers in Italy accused the British media of deliberately stitching up Cardinal Kasper. They submitted it as further evidence that the Pope was embarking on a visit to a proverbial Colosseum of militant atheists salivating at the chance to tear him to shreds.
It was certainly not the most auspicious beginning of a papal journey. But speaking to reporters on his plane en route to Edinburgh, Pope Benedict said he was not concerned about reports that a cool reception awaited him. “I must admit that I am not worried,” he said, noting that similar negative predictions of likely disaster were made in the run-up to his visits to France in 2008 and the Czech Republic last year. “All Western countries have, each one in its own way, strong anticlerical and anti-Catholic opinions, but they also have a strong presence of the faith,” he said. He said in Britain there was also “a great history of tolerance” and so he was making his visit “in good spirits and with joy”.
As it turned out, the Pope’s intuitions were right on target. From his arrival in Scotland onwards, the Pope was given a warm reception at every event he attended. He and his entourage were particularly surprised and delighted by the sustained and thunderous ovation that accompanied him into and out of Westminster Hall for his keynote address of the visit. And they marvelled that so many people had spontaneously turned up along The Mall in central London to see him make his way to the Saturday prayer vigil in Hyde Park.
Conversely, this was the first foreign journey in his five-and-a-half year pontificate when Benedict XVI was met with significant protests. While a few placard-carrying hecklers turned up at most venues of the visit, the most significant event by far was Saturday’s “Protest the Pope” rally that saw several thousand people march through central London. However, the Protest the Pope marchers were outnumbered 45:1 by the Hyde Park prayer vigil pilgrims and people on The Mall combined.
What was noticeably more significant was the extent to which Pope Benedict not only spoke at events but also listened. This was particularly the case in London.
The British organisers from both Church and state also ensured that the Pope witnessed a cross-section of the nation’s rich and complex tapestry of religious, secular and political culture.
The festive gathering with students and teachers at St Mary’s University College, Strawberry Hill, on 17 September was one of the best examples of the Catholic Church in Britain on display, affording the Pope time to see the character of Catholic schooling as well as speak himself. Also held at Strawberry Hill was the meeting with representatives of other faiths where talks by Archbishop Patrick Kelly, the Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks and Dr Khaled Azzam, chief executive of the Prince’s School for Traditional Arts, actually occupied more of the programme than the Pope’s address.
At Westminster Hall, where Vatican officials stressed that Pope Benedict’s address was one of his most important to date, the introduction by House of Commons Speaker John Bercow and the post-address appreciation by House of Lords Speaker Baroness Hayman both highlighted how the business of democracy and governance is done the British way. The Prime Minister’s words at the farewell ceremony in Birmingham were an additional voice to this particular chorus.
Pope Benedict was well aware that his own words would have a resonance far beyond Britain and would reach what he called, “the two billion members of the Commonwealth and the great family of English-speaking nations throughout the world”. The tone of his carefully written speeches throughout the visit was positive and some of the more controversial issues – the place of women in the Church, attitudes to gay people – were either avoided or soft-peddled. Pope Benedict also avoided making unscripted remarks before a microphone. Even in comments to journalists on his plane he used only Italian, which some found odd for a polyglot travelling to the UK. Many may be surprised, but Benedict XVI is not comfortable speaking in English. On his visit to the Holy Land last year, he was overheard telling Israeli President Shimon Peres, “My English is very limited.”
But after his visit to Britain he may feel much more positive about his own language skills and his view of the nation. He certainly goes away with a better appreciation of the Anglican liturgical tradition, which was magnificently showcased at the sung evening prayer service at Westminster Abbey.
Contrary to his other foreign visits, Pope Benedict was almost immediately embraced by most British Catholics for the several occasions on which he expressed contrition over the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Maybe this was because, for the first time, he met child protection agency officials. His comments on sex abuse certainly over-shadowed the main point of his homily at Westminster Cathedral. The mainstream media ignored his pre-Vatican II emphasis on the Mass as sacrifice (no mention of meal) and on the Crucifixion (just a passing mention of the Resurrection) as the core of Christian faith.
The Vatican insisted that the beatification of John Henry Newman was the purpose of the papal visit. The Pope’s hope is that he will have drawn global attention to this great Anglican-turned-Catholic theologian and generated greater interest in his works.
There will be some in Rome and elsewhere who perceive the British Catholic bishops as being too liberal, and they will be disappointed by the visit for they had hoped Pope Benedict would upbraid the bishops of England and Wales, and of Scotland, during his address to them at Oscott College. But he merely repeated an earlier request that they be “generous” in implementing his controversial offer to allow Anglican communities to corporately join the Catholic Church through the vehicle of an ordinariate. He also urged them to “seize the opportunity that the new translation [of the Missal] offers for in-depth catechesis on the Eucharist and renewed devotion in the manner of its celebration”.
Without a doubt, Pope Benedict’s visit has been seen in an overwhelmingly positive light. Many in Britain were pleasantly surprised to find him a kindly and grandfatherly figure and through this revelation of his character he seems to have changed the minds and beguiled the hearts of his liberal critics. The coming months will show the extent to which this is a lasting change, whether the visit has in any way altered the Pope’s own view of Britain, and what impact it will have on the broader story of this pontificate.