Three weeks have passed since the Pope’s visit to Great Britain, and memories of it still fill my mind, because it was a triumph few had expected. Of all the remarkable things I saw, while blogging about it for First Things, nothing more surprised me than this: on September 18th, as his Popemobile rolled toward Hyde Park—with Benedict waiving to his supporters packed along the streets—a BBC reporter, watching in amazement, suddenly burst out: “The 83-year-old pontiff has confounded his critics!”
To appreciate the significance of that comment, one has to understand the BBC. For years, it has been among Benedict's most cynical media foes, questioning every aspect of his pontificate. The coverage has been so bad that Scotland’s Cardinal Keith O’Brien felt it necessary to speak out (Catholic bishops in the U.K. tend to keep their heads down), denouncing the network’s “consistent anti-Christian institutional bias,” particularly against the Catholic Church.
Yet there was that BBC reporter, undergoing an awakening, if only for an instant.
Even more astonishing was the reaction of another commentator, Joe Wilson, of BBC Radio Lancashire: “Somehow as the four days progressed, bit by bit, the Pope’s visit transformed from the worry of embarrassment that reaction would be tepid, to the glow of the eventual warmth given off by the obvious love so many felt for him.”
He quoted a pilgrim “still floating on a cloud somewhere” over Hyde Park: “It was really, really wonderful. We were just surrounded by so many different people. Young people, elderly people, more young people than elderly people, people of all nationalities. It was awesome.”
This was not supposed to happen.
In the weeks leading up to the papal visit, the secular media’s coverage was almost universally negative. “Pope Faces Protests and Apathy on Visit to Britain,” headlined the Guardian of London. “Pope Benedict to Encounter Hostile Audience in U.K. Visit,”reported the Religion News Service. “How do You Welcome an Unpopular Pope?” asked The Atlantic sarcastically. Time magazine assured its readers that Benedict’s journey “promises to be the chilliest—and potentially rudest—welcome of his 17 trips abroad.”
Although Catholics in Britain kept insisting that Benedict’s visit would “bring energy and inspiration,” to quote the archbishop of Westminster, the media had its own agenda. They weren’t interested in what the faithful had to say.
But it would be the faithful, and their spiritual leader, who would have the last say. From the opening moments of his voyage to his departure at Birmingham airport, Pope Benedict’s pilgrimage was virtually flawless. For a papacy supposedly unskilled in communications, the Pope and his entourage delivered a tour de force of public relations.
It would be a mistake, however, to judge the papal visit purely as PR. For as memorable as the visuals were, it was the substance of the visit that counted most.
On the plane ride to Scotland, and throughout his visit, Benedict made clear how serious he was in combating clerical abuse. The “first interest” of the Church, he said are “the victims.” He promised to do everything in his power to help them “overcome the trauma, to refind their lives.” His private meeting with victims, and commitment to justice on their behalf, impressed the British public, disproving any notion he was out to dodge or minimize the gravity of the issue.
He then did what every pope is called to do: he bore witness to Jesus Christ. He did so in the heart of secular Europe, with diplomatic aplomb and mutual respect. He praised Britain’s many social achievements, but defended the Church’s liberty and faith in the public square. He pushed back against a rabid, unhealthy secularism. He pointed out that a secular society is only as strong as the beliefs that undergird it—and reminded the British of their Christian history, and why its given them so much to be thankful for.
He bucked up the spirits and convictions of the British bishops and thus gave hope to all British Catholics. He called Great Britain back to its religious heritage, proposing its citizens draw on it again, to heal contemporary ills. He met with interfaith groups, and gave new life to the Church’s ecumenical mission, but also paid tribute to the unique virtues of Catholicism, honoring two of its greatest sons, Thomas More and John Henry Newman.
And he did something else, not often mentioned: he conveyed a sense of Christianity’s overwhelming beauty. “The most positive effect of the Pope’s visit was one that even the BBC could not prevent-and that was the public display of Roman Catholic ritual at its most gorgeous and replete,” wrote British philosopher Roger Scruton perceptively.
For many television viewers the Mass at Westminster Cathedral was their first experience of sacramental religion. The mystical identity between the ordinary worshiper and the crucified Christ is something that can be enacted, but never explained. It is enacted in the Mass, and as Cardinal Newman recognized, it is the felt reality of Christ’s presence that is the true gift of Christianity to its followers. . . . For many Englishmen, I suspect, the Pope’s Westminster Mass was the first inkling of what Christianity really means.
As these transcendent events were taking place, the British public got an opportunity to contrast—up close and first-hand—the beautiful message of Benedict with the ugliness of his unbridled critics. What they heard from the latter must have sounded surreal, given the gentle witness of the actual man.
“Joseph Ratzinger is an enemy of humanity,” declared scientist Richard Dawkins absurdly. Philosopher A.C. Grayling called Catholicism a “criminal conspiracy” under Benedict. “In all my years as a campaigner,” said secular activist Claire Rayner, “I have never felt such animus against any individual as I do against this creature. His views are so disgusting, so repellent and so hugely damaging to the rest of us, that the only thing to do is to get rid of him.” This is the face of modern atheism.
Or, at least, much of it. Columnists Padraig Reidy and Simon Heffer wanted no part of this embarrassing intolerance, and rebuked their fellow atheists. The tone of these critics, said Reidy, is like that of “Ian Paisley’s rabidly anti-papist Free Presbyterian church, not of rational secular debate.” Heffer wrote how “dismayed” he was by “the aggression and militancy” of the anti-papal atheists, and said their antics “threatened to compromise our reputation as a civilized and hospitable country.”
But it would be that very civilized tradition that would uphold British honor in the end, allowing the public to hear Benedict’s elegant voice. The Pope reciprocated, and didn’t miss his chance.
“Although he had come with a fierce message about the vital importance of the place of faith in public life and education,” wrote Austen Ivereigh, “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 recognize as the true humanism.”
Ivereigh’s views were echoed by strikingly favorable editorials in the secular British press. “Pope Gives Britain a Lesson in Candor,” hailed the Daily Mail. “The Pope Puts Religion Back in the Spotlight,” affirmed the Daily Telegraph.
If there is one man in Britain who deserves credit for bringing all this to fruition, it is Chris Patten, the official appointed by the government to help oversee the papal visit. Lord Patten is a rather unlikely hero. A “progressive” Catholic, his faith has often been described as tepid and fashionable, very much like that of Tony Blair’s. In the days leading up to the papal visit, Patten was widely mocked, by both Left and Right, as a hapless figurehead, who was obviously overseeing an impending disaster.
But it was Patten, for all his imperfections, who never lost faith in Benedict, and in his ability to inspire a secular audience. In a combative interview with the BBC, Patten described Benedict as “the greatest intellectual to be pope since Innocent III,” a “world class theologian,” who had a “really important message about the Christian roots of civilization in this country, and in Europe, and the way in which we can become more self-confident in asserting those Christian traditions.”
Nobody can argue, said Patten, “that Pope Benedict doesn’t have very thoughtful and intelligent ideas to offer.” Most of those who know Benedict, “regard him as a very sympathetic figure.” He noted that his previous visits “have all confounded the critics who existed before, because of the way he’s dealt with the public, not just the Catholics, but others as well.”
Asked if he was worried about protests, he said, “No, not at all,” and predicted the visit would be a “huge success.” He had every right to celebrate, therefore, when his prediction proved true.
Perhaps the most revealing comment about the papal visit, came from a source outside Britain. “What has made this trip such a palpable success?” asked the Italian daily Il Tempo. “Above all, because we’re not talking about an ‘idea,’ but rather a ‘presence.’ The Pope is a real presence, not a clerical idea, of what religion is all about.”
The journey also affected Benedict. Upon his return to Rome, he affirmed that Christianity was still “strong and active” in Britain, despite many challenges, and shared his “profound conviction” that “the ancient nations of Europe have a Christian soul.”
Benedict’s stay, co
ncluded Lord Patten, “was in the most profound sense a visit to remember. . . . [I]ts lessons and messages will reverberate down the years.”
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. His 80,000-word annotated bibliography on Pius XII appears in The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII (Lexington Books, 2004).