By Edward Pentin
LONDON, SEPT. 20, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI’s four-day state visit to Britain defied doomsayers and the negative publicity that preceded it, bringing 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.
Both the government and the Vatican were delighted with how well it went. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said it was a “wonderful visit” and, above all, a “spiritual success.”
The numbers of cheering supporters were far greater than any protest groups (200,000 on the streets of London on Saturday compared to around 5,000 protesters 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.”
The British press, some of which has been extremely hostile to the visit, gave a virtually unanimous verdict that it could not have gone better for the Church. The Daily Mail described the visit as “triumphant,” adding that “by last night, the protesters appeared defeated, with celebrity objectors virtually silent and demonstrations against the visit few and muted.”
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 has become 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 from 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 British people to see what the Pope is really like, as opposed to his media-concocted image. They were won over by his shyness, deep humility, and child-like innocence — just as many in the Vatican predicted they would be. But they were also impressed by his courage and his willingness to speak his mind.
“This was a much more successful visit than the Roman Catholic hierarchy could have dared to hope,” wrote English commentator Stepehen Glover. “The Pope spoke to the soul of our country, affirming the eternal moral verities which our own political and religious leaders normally prefer to avoid. In essence, he has been asking us to examine what kind of country we want this to be.”
And perhaps more than on any other papal visit, he comprehensively addressed the sexual abuse scandal, first referring to his “shock” and “sadness” that 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 Holy Father expressed his concern at the “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 enter into 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 and telling them that ever longer lives offer an opportunity to remember in prayer those “whom we have cherished in this life.”
The Pope called Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, the 19th-century theologian whom the Pope came to England to beatify, a “great son of England,” recalling how he showed his priestly compassion to the poor, sick and imprisoned.
The visit was also a historic first, which above all signified a new chapter for the Church in this historically Protestant country, one in which a line had finally been 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.