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Austen IvereighSeptember 19, 2010

A short while ago, at 6.45 pm UK time, Pope Benedict XVI's Alitalia plane, "Shepherd One", threaded its way into the lead skies above Birmingham Airport back to Rome, after a brief departure ceremony in which the prime minister, David Cameron, told him that he had "challenged the whole country to sit up and think".

On this "truly historic first State Visit to Britain," the prime minister said, "you have spoken to a nation of 6 million Catholics but you have been heard by a nation of more than 60 million citizens  and by many millions more all around the world."  Faith, he said, was "part of the fabric of our country ...  a vital part of our national conversation. And we are proud of that."

A country of faith? Challenged to think by the Pope? Something seems to have happened here. 

And it has. The spontaneous crowds, the wall-to-wall media coverage, the seeming fascination with the dialogue Pope Benedict sought to have with Britain, are all indications that this unusually state guest was received not with apathy or hostility -- as the media before last Thursday were warning he would be -- but with curiosity and receptivity. This has clearly been a shock for a largely liberal, metropolitan media.The Catholic commentator Clifford Longley, with whom I shared a radio studio this morning, drew a comparison with the US media discovering after George W Bush's election that they had ignored the influence of the flyover states.

There is something of a similar self-questioning evident now: why, when they could only pull together 6,000 demonstrators -- not an insignificant number, but paltry compared to the 200,000 who lined the streets yesterday, and the 80,000 in Hyde Park -- did the media give the anti-Pope protesters so much air time? Or, expressed another way: where the heck did all these people come from?

The answer is, of course, that many came precisely because of the airtime given over to the the gay rights activists, secularists and professional atheists. Catholics are loyal to popes, and to the papacy. They may not know how to answer the protesters' shrill objections, but they know when the leader of their Church is being unfairly trashed. A large number of the "vox pops" interviewed on Sky and the BBC mentioned this as the reason why they decided to line the streets of Whitehall six people deep.

"Everyone is agreed about the great success, not so much from the point of view of the numbers, but ... by the fact that the message of the pope was received with respect and joy by the faithful," the Pope's spokesman, Federico Lombardi, told reporters earlier today. The Vatican has already declared the visit a triumph, and no one seems to disagree.

After the Mass of Beatification of Cardinal Newman, the Pope paid a private visit to the Oratory before going onto to Oscott College, the seminary for the diocese of Birmingham, where he met with the bishops of England, Scotland and Wales.

In his address to them, referring to "the urgent need to proclaim the Gospel afresh in a highly secularized environment", he seemed to suggest an answer to the mystery now being pondered by the media: why, if Britain is so secular, was he received so enthusiastically? "In the course of my visit," he said, "it has become clear to me how deep a thirst there is among the British people for the Good News of Jesus Christ." Is that right? Is Britain -- post-Christian, secular, "believing but not belonging" Britain -- really so hungry for what the Pope has to offer? He certainly seemed, in these four days, to think so, praising great British virtues which he saw as rooted in the nation's Christian legacy.

He told the bishops: "As you proclaim the coming of the Kingdom, with its promise of hope for the poor and the needy, the sick and the elderly, the unborn and the neglected, be sure to present in its fulness the life-giving message of the Gospel, including those elements which call into question the widespread assumptions of today's culture."

He also returned, again, to the clerical sex abuse crisis, a theme which in the last two days of his visit has emerged as almost as important as the argument for the inclusion of faith in public life.

He praised the bishops for having taken "serious steps to remedy this situation, to ensure that children are effectively protected from harm and to deal properly and transparently with allegations as they arise", and called on them "to share the lessons you have learned with the wider community. Indeed, what better way could there be of making reparation for these sins than by reaching out, in a humble spirit of compassion, towards children who continue to suffer abuse elswhere?"

A short time ago I was watching the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, sum this up on the BBC. "What better way for the Church to do penance for its failures than by helping wider society deal better with the abuse in its midst?" he asked.

Pope Benedict also asked the bishops to be "generous" in their response to applications to the ordinariate, which "should be seen as a prophetic gesture that can contribute positively to the developing relations between Anglicans and Catholics" by promoting unity while accepting differences.

He also asked them to see the new English translation of the Mass, "as an opportunity ... for in-depth catechesis on the Eucharist and renewed devotion in the manner of its celebration."

In his closing remarks at Birmingham airport, Pope Benedict thanked the British people for the warmth of their welcome, and spoke again of the challenge of building a pluralistic society, as well as the opportunity for doing so through intercultural dialogue.

Although he had come with a fierce message about the vital importance of the place of faith in public life and education, it had been framed, throughout, in terms and language and symbols which pointed to the value of dialogue and respect. It is this, perhaps above all, which floored his critics. The Pope's was a message which all could instantly recognise as the true humanism. 

He leaves a Church invigorated and unified by his visit; a Church more proud and confident than it was last Wednesday; a Church which will be pondering some magnificent texts for many years to come - -and images of a Pope whose smiling, gentle countenance speaks of the kind of humanism Britain will need to prosper.


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david power
13 years ago
I hope he follows through on all he said about the victims and especially about the various forms of support being offered to them that he talked about.
Great coverage from Austen Ivereigh.  
I was in London this weekend.Incredible.Those who came to the barrel seeking fish were floored.Game ,Set ,match Ratzinger!!!
13 years ago
What a historic, thoughtful and energizing trip!  Thanks for the great coverage and God Bless Pope Benedict!
13 years ago
Of course, Ross Douthat at the NYTs has great analysis here:

Vince Killoran
13 years ago
Sorry to rain on your parade but the glow of the visit will wear off in a fortnight (okay, that was cheesy on my part!). Has anyone actually done a  study of the effect of these Papal visits on parish life, vocations, etc.?  They are kind of expensive. . .

B. XVI's talk of dialogue is fine but there is precious little of it allowed within the Church itself; the Pope has never explained what he knew about the abuse scandal, when he knew it, and what he did about it from the start; and, his his take on the way we should receive the new Mass translations was pretty glibe.

As for Ross Douthat's better-than-usual column: he is frank about the serious shortcomings of the those in and around the Papacy but then totally punts by claiming that we look to Rome anyways "for the long view."  I like Gary Wills explanation of the importance of the Bishop of Rome to our Faith better.
William Marvel
13 years ago
"why, when they could only pull together 6,000 demonstrators - not an insignificant number, but paltry compared to the 200,000 who lined the streets yesterday, and the 80,000 in Hyde Park - did the media give the anti-Pope protesters so much air time?"

This kind of question, which occurs in all kinds of contexts, always leaves me baffled. What is it about the nature of "the media" you do not understand? The media for the most part do not cover the ordinary, the expected. (That Benedict would draw large crowds of Catholic Britons was entirely predictable.) Signs of conflict, protest, suggest underlying troubles and tensions. THAT is what the media covers.

As a lifelong journalist and practicing Catholic, I've never ceased to wonder why it is, when  that mythical multi-headed beast, "the media," cover events within the Church, Catholics behave predictably like everyobne else.

Jim McCrea
13 years ago
I swallowed my pride and turned on EWTN to watch the beatification ceremony in Birmingham. I turned off the sound until those smarmy talking heads (”Fr.” Sirico and Raymond Arroyo) shut up. A couple of things struck me:
The reception by the people was very good.
So much Latin reminded me of how flat and uninvolving a liturgical language it is. Borrrrring.
Apparent clericalism was highly visible at communion time. The clerics who received from the pope did so while standing. However the laity had to kneel and receive from B16. Why the distinction?
I also noted that the vast crowds in the audience were allowed to receive in their hands while the Specially Selected Little People had to stick out their tongues (was that a special sign of the disapproval of the Holy Spirit?).
Once the mass was over I started to watch the tour of the Birmingham Oratory but stopped quickly. My diabetes would have become inflamed by Arroyo’s sugary gushing and gee-whizzing all over the place.
13 years ago
It is striking how the usual cynical commentators have more in common with the tiny, monolithic group of anti-catholic protestors than with the diverse and joyful crowds that that welcomed Benedict to the UK.

Try putting aside your personal and political objectives - i.e. liberalization of the Church - for a while and join with the rest of us in solidarity and celebration.  

Vince Killoran
13 years ago
"Solidarity and celebration"?!  Not unless they serve some cake.

I've always admired AMERICA's orientation toward serious discussion & debate about our Faith and the World. I'm certain that  the fuzzy, feel-good stuff is on some other website.
Gabriel McAuliffe
13 years ago
"The reception by the people was very good."

Despite all of the complaints by Mr. McCrea, his one comment here stands out.  Makes one wonder if about the reception by the People of God if something good is actually happening here.  It makes one wonder.

Blessings to you, Mr. McCrea, for pointing that out!  God bless you!

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