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Austen IvereighNovember 09, 2010

Judging the success of a papal visit is never a scientific exercise. But there are certain criteria: was the Pope listened to, or ignored? Did people turn out? Did the media give it good coverage? Did words and actions go together? Were there moments which made people sit up?

Some visits, however wonderful for those taking part, get obscured by particular stories which dominate the headlines and marginalize the deeper message - -as happened in 2008 when the Pope made comments on the papal plane on Aids and condoms which drowned out any further reporting of the trip.

This time, it was Pope Benedict's comments on the papal plane linking modern-day Spanish secularism and anticlericalism to the 1930s which threatened, for a while to derail the trip. Many on the left reacted furiously, as did secularists in the UK when Pope Benedict's Edinburgh speech lumped together atheism and Nazism. But unlike in the UK, where the furious reaction wasn't taken up by the newspapers, the Madrid daily El Pais, the mouthpiece of the left-liberal establishment, and El Publico, saw it as insult, one that was both historically inaccurate (6,000 priests and religious were killed in the civil war, and countless churches torched) and one-sided (because it failed to acknowledge the Church's errors).

Yet what the Pope in fact said was that Spain saw the birth of "a strong and aggressive secularism such as that of the 1930s" and that "this dispute, this clash between faith and modernity, both very lively, is coming about again in Spain today", before going to call for an "encounter" between faith and secularism to resolve misunderstandings. It was clear that Benedict XVI was referring to the shadows of the past which still hang over the present -- which nobody would dispute.

But whereas in the UK, the Pope's messages and actions made a powerful case against the exclusion of faith from public life by demonstrating that the Church had much to contribute to it, in Spain Benedict XVI didn't manage to persuade the children of the Franco era to reconsider. He made the usual eloquent and passionate argument in favour of the need to reconcile faith and reason, truth and freedom, modernity and morality, in elegant, direct texts, but steered clear of addressing some of the historic causes of that alienation. No doubt, there was only so much he could do in two Masses, and there was more than enough to tackle in the themes of pilgrimage, faith, the Christian origins of Europe, God and beauty, the sanctity of life, and so on. He was there too briefly, it could be argued, to start up a passionate debate about the Church's historical record.

But while it lifted the pros, it didn't shift the antis.

The Church was happy with the turnouts. As happened in the UK, the contemporary European obsession with security has to a large extent killed off the spontaneous crowds of the John Paul II era. Going to the Sagrada Familia, it was extraordinary to see a policeman every two feet stretching for miles down streets which, again for security reasons, the Popemobile sped along at 20 miles an hour. Just as in the UK, the way the Church now organises attendance for the events -- each parish is allocated tickets, and has to organize a coach to be bussed in -- meant that the crowds were far smaller than in the previous pontificate. Hotels in Santiago de Compostela and Barcelona were at 70-80% capacity, more than usual for November, but far lower than in the summer season. 

That said, Barcelona managed a highly respectable 250,000 spontaneous turnout -- similar to that which came out for Benedict XVI in London.

The greatest success of the visit was visual -- a display of the power of Catholic liturgy in two of the world's most iconic cathedrals. Few places of worship can match the botafumeiro in Santiago de Compostela, or Gaudi's dazzling modern masterpiece in Barcelona.

The Sagrada Familia liturgy was a rare spectacle followed by millions on television -- one in four Spaniards, estimate today's papers -- assisted by the Catalan television station TV3's spidercam, which swooped and soared through the basilica (from where I was sitting, it was a wonder to behold), giving an angel's eye view.

And in Barcelona, the tone was set by its highly-esteemed daily, La Vanguardia, whose editor -- I was told -- had observed the UK papal trip and learned from it: he knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime, heaven-sent chance to register the city in the consciousness of the world. The newspaper's coverage was respectful, phenomenally detailed, and scornful of what it saw as the petty-mindedness of the protesters.

That left the secularists looking like a powerless, disgruntled minority. An anti-pope protest of 2,000 -- with bizarrely ideological slogans such as "No to the Church and the state"  -- and a gay "kiss-in" were made to look bad-tempered and ill-judged.

By leaving Spain, preferring to visit troops in Afghanistan, the prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, was also made to look sectarian and un-presidential, giving the main platform to Spain's royal family. By reinforcing stereotypes of socialist anticlerical state versus Catholic monarchy, Zapatero came off looking small-minded in comparison to the Catalan politicians of all stripes who made sure they were in the Sagrada Familia for this historical cultural moment. 

As in the UK, this was another success for Vatican diplomats. They squared off the government well in advance, and have lowered the temperature of Church-state conflict over the heads of the Spanish bishops' conference.

But the greatest achievement of the papal visit was to heal the wounds left by Pope John Paul II's visit to Barcelona in 1982, when he made the fatal mistake of addressing Catalans without mentioning their nationality, using the same phrase with which Franco addressed them, as "Barcelonans". That insult -- for which the Madrid bishops were responsible -- has lingered long in the Catalan Church, but has been amply compensated by Pope Benedict's warm words in Catalan, and his frequent mention of "this Catalan land".

Globally, that's not going to make much impact. But it has left Catalonia's 1m Catholics feeling recognized, vindicated and more confident.

In that sense Pope Benedict XVI's Spanish trip, like his UK visit, has been a huge success in encouraging Catholics to step up and be counted. 

By reminding Spain of the glories of the Church and its vital place in their nation, he may have gently helped to roll back the secularist tide. To the Catholic world at large, he has shown what it means to preside over an authentically sacred liturgy, in a setting of daring modernity.

In some senses, it's too early to evaluate, because last weekend should be seen as the first part of a two-part visit, the second stage of which takes place next August at World Youth Day in Madrid.

It may be then that the Vatican sees the major opportunity to heal the wounds left by the Civil War -- and put the Church at the centre of that historic reconciliation. If nothing else, this trip has been a perfectly executed curtain-raiser for that massive event.


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Vince Killoran
13 years 3 months ago
This is a very question although I take issue with the dismissive way in which papal critics are characterized.  There's a unfortunate giddiness to this reporting.

The key issue is-how do we gauge success? Is there any way to tell? An uptick in Mass attendance? Increase in vocations? Religious education enrollment?
13 years 3 months ago
You are right, Vince; the homosexual activists should be commended for their mature, thoughtful and supremely respectful action they took during this papal visit. 

Hundreds of homosexuals making out and fondling one another as the Holy Father passed by them was really very tasteful and it showed that respect is certainly not a one-way street for them.

Same for the anarchists: "No church, no state" is very well thought out position that  promotes a holistic lack of faith AND a lack of reason!

Vince Killoran
13 years 3 months ago
On the other hand I don't recall gay protestors telling the Pope was he was fundamentally disordered.

Let me ask this basic question: isn't it acceptable for an individual or group to turn out to protest the Pope?

13 years 3 months ago
Free speech is A-OK in my book, but there should be some civility involved.

Disordered?  The homosexual and secularist protestors in London had much, much worse things to say about the pope, in specific, and Catholics, in general, than mere "disordered."

And the stunt in Barcelona was surely in bad taste...unless one no longer believes in the idea of civility and the limits it places on behavior.  Of course, I forgot: it is now "forbidden to forbid" in our culture...anything goes.

Vince Killoran
13 years 3 months ago
I'm guilty of bad tast a few times a day. I'm also guilty of posting too much so I'll let this be the last from me on this post.

You don't offer any examples but I can't imagine much worse than being labelled "fundamentally disordered."

I think a defensiveness, a seige mentality has set in among Catholics.  We must expect others to examine and, on occasion, protest our actions (or inaction).  We live in a pluralist society. We might learn from others, however difficult it is to hear about our faults. 2010 has been a difficult year for our Church. . .
13 years 3 months ago
I agree; we will go in circles on this as usual!

Calling an action "fundamentally disordered" is not the same thing as calling a person disordered in the ontological sense.

As for the homosexual activists, the pope speaks about actions while they prefer to demonize people - i.e. calling the pope a nazi etc. etc.

Perhaps they, too, can benefit from a little introspection - they call for tolerance while displaying the worst tendencies of intolerence...
david power
13 years 3 months ago
Thanks again Austen for your postings here in America.I have enjoyed them.On the success of the trip I think that it is only long-term history that will give the answer.This is an excerpt from a book by Jon Sobrino detailing a trip by the late Pope to El Salvador
"Important ecclesial events, like a papal visit, are often organized in such a way that they too produce a feeling of unreality. In the Pope’s 1996 visit to El Salvador, it is true that most of the people who attended were poor. But all one could see of their reality was their religious enthusiasm, more or less effectively organized. One didn’t see their poverty, their fears, their discouragement and helplessness, not even their true faith and hope; one didn’t see their reality. As the event was organized, the poor served more as a backdrop than as the reality of the country; in the foreground were minorities that do not represent the reality: the government, legislators and politicians, the rich and powerful, and the Church beside them. The Pope’s visit neither reflected reality nor, to judge from the consequences, had any important effect on it."
This is a harsh judgment but probably a true one.
Dis the Pope manage to get people to think of Jesus?Did he present successfully Jesus as the answer to human experience and longing?   
I think Pope Benedict is very conscious that he is not the point, and he does not seek to be the centre of attention.
Joseph O'Leary
13 years 3 months ago
Brett Joyce, do you not know that the Church teaches that the homosexual orientation itself is objectively disordered (which does come very close to saying that the persons who have this orientation are disordered)? Under Franco it was forbidden for anyone to kiss in public; the Spanish gays are taking advantage of the rights and freedoms of democracy; could it be homophobia that causes some people to cringe at the sight of 2 men kissing?

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