Confounding the image of him created by the storm of criticism this past week in the British press, Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Edinburgh this morning with his eyes downcast, generating a warmth that seemed to spread through the crowds.
On the flight from Rome, he spoke of his sorrow at clerical sex abuse and the way it had been mishandled. "These revelations were for me a shock, and a great sadness. It is difficult to understand how this perversion of the priestly ministry was possible," he told journalists, adding: "It is a sadness, also, that the authority of the church was not vigilant enough, was not sufficiently fast and decisive in taking the necessary measures."
After being driven from the airport in the company of the Duke of Edinburgh -- one wonders what the two old men spoke of --he was received by the Queen at Holyrood House. They exchanged gifts and made small talk -- unusually for this sort of occasions, within earshot of the press. "The car that brought you was rather small, I thought", Her Majesty told Pope Benedict.
Her speech was gracious, recalling her four visits to the Vatican and the visit by Pope John Paul II. "Your presence here today reminds us of our common Christian heritage", she told him, before going to praise the special contribution of the Church in its ministry to the poorest.
In his speech, Pope Benedict made clear why he was here -- to remind Britain that the fruits of its greatness were nourished by the soil of Christian faith. He praised the Christian British monarchs, who "exercised their sovereign duty in the light of the Gospel". As a result, the Christian message, he said, has been "an integral part of the language, thought and culture of these islands for more than 1000 years", demonstrated in respect for truth and justice, mercy and charity, for Christians and non-Christians alike.
The Pope went on to praise "many examples of this force for good" in Britons such as William Wilberforce and David Livingstone who struggled to end the slave trade, and Florence Nightingale for setting new standards in health care. Because the protests against this visit as a state visit have come from vociferous human rights activists, it was an adroit reference.
He went on to stake his claim as an opponent of totalitarianism, recalling how the British had against Nazi Germany, received Jews, and paid with their lives in a struggle against "atheist extremism", which in the totalitarian experiments of the twentieth century showed how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue in public life led to a reductive vision of the person and his dignity.
Britain, he said, was a key figure on international stage, politically and economically, as a shaper of ideas, and therefore has a particular responsibility to work for the common good. The media, he said, had a greater responsibility than most because of this influence. "May all Britons continue to live by the honesty, respect and fair-mindedness which have won them esteem and admiration of many", he said.
Then came his agenda. Britain, he said, was now striving to be a modern, multicultural society. "In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate," he said, adding: "Let it not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms".
The cheering crowds in Edinburgh numbered 125,000 -- and the protesters were barely to be seen.
It was a barnstoming start. You can feel the tide turning in his favour.