BY SIMON CALDWELL
POPE BENEDICT XVI’s visit to Britain ended in magnificent triumph after four days of Masses, speeches, public appearances and the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman.
The German-born Pontiff made history by becoming the first pope to make a state visit to Britain, the first to visit the Archbishop at Canterbury at Lambeth Palace, the first to address parliamentarians at Westminster Hall, the first to preach in Westminster Abbey and the first to perform a beatification on British soil.
Ahead of the trip the media had predicted widespread apathy among Catholics and low turnouts at papal events. But more than half a million people made the effort to welcome Pope Benedict in person as the British people took him to their hearts.
For many it was the first time that they had the chance to glimpse the meek, gentle and scholarly personality of a man often caricatured as gaffe-prone or severely autocratic – and the chance to hear his words as spoken rather than me diated through a filter of prejudice and ignorance.
The hyperbolic complaints of the most severe anti-papal critics began to fade into insignificance as soon as the Holy Father made his opening address in the presence of the Queen at Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh.
Setting the tone for much of the rest of his trip the Pope sounded a warning to the country not to reject ei ther the natural moral law or the role of religion in society. He praised Britain’s Christian identity for giving the country the strength to resist the “aggressive atheism” of such 20th-century ideologies as Nazism that “wished to eradicate God from society”.
After first passing through Edinburgh wearing a specially designed papal tartan, he later urged 55,000 worshippers at a Mass in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, to reject the notion that the Christian faith was opposed to equality and liberty, saying it was in fact the true guarantee of human dignity and authentic human rights.
After the hectic first day Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, the Pope’s spokesman, remarked that the visit was off to best possible start – but better was yet to come. The Pope’s next appointment was the Big Assembly at St Mary’s University College, in Twickenham, London, described as a “rousing encounter” with nearly 4,000 schoolchildren and witnessed on the internet by 800,000 more. This was the occasion of what some observers felt was one of the Pope’s most moving speeches, when he invited the young to aim to be saints by eschewing the lures of wealth and fame for holiness and friendship with Christ.
Later that afternoon the Pope met the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and other Anglican bishops at Lambeth Palace, the place where St Thomas More Continued on Page 2
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Papal visit is hailed as a great success
Continued from page one refused to take the oath attached to the Act of Succession, an act of conscience that ultimately led to his martyrdom.
The Pope then crossed the Thames in his Popemobile, stopping only to kiss babies, to Westminster Hall to deliver possibly the most important civic speech of the tour in the presence of an audience of 2,000 which included Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Baroness Thatcher.
Close to the spot where St Thomas More and St Edmund Campion were condemned to death for their Catholic faith, he told the audience of his concern at the increasing “marginalisation” of Christianity, even to the point where Christmas was sometimes sidelined.
Again, the Pope hammered home his point that if the political life of the British nation was not to be informed by the objective natural moral law, encapsulated in the Ten Commandments, then it could become vulnerable to lethal ideologies. He condemned attempts to silence the consciences of Christians and said the Church must be free to serve the common good in keeping with its teachings.
Even with the knowledge that police were investigating a possible terror plot against him, he emerged afterwards apparently unfazed into a charged and febrile atmosphere of a crowd that had assembled to harangue and insult him or to cheer and welcome him. Protestant fundamentalists joined aggressive secularists in hurling abuse at the Pontiff as he crossed the short distance to Westminster Abbey as Catholics and other Christians chanted hymns and waved papal banners.
Inside the ancient abbey, Benedict XVI and Dr Williams prayed together at the tomb of St Edward the Confessor in the most profoundly ecumenical moment of the visit.
On Saturday, the Pope turned his attention to clerical child abuse, the issue that had threatened to mar his visit and which had remained a continual focus of the media.
At a Mass in Westminster Cathedral he denounced the “unspeakable crimes” against children that had brought shame upon the Church. Hours later he privately met five British victims of abuse and those involved in the Church’s child protection work.
A brief visit to St Peter’s Residence for the elderly in south London preceded the best-attended of all the papal events, the prayer vigil in Hyde Park in front of a crowd of 80,000 people, staged just hours after 12,000 secularists marched through central London to protest against his visit.
In spite of the festive nature of the prayer vigil the Pope again preached on the “objective reality of Christian revelation” and invited the crowd to learn from Cardinal Newman to find in the truth “our ultimate freedom and the fulfilment of our deepest aspirations”. He also paid tribute to the nearly 400 Catholic martyrs who had died at Tyburn, on the northeastern edge of the park. He said that the price to be paid for fidelity to the Gospel today often meant being “dismissed out of hand, ridiculed or parodied”.
The following morning Pope Benedict attracted more than 50,000 pilgrims to Cofton Park, Birmingham, where he beatified Cardinal Newman.
Meeting the British bishops at St Mary’s College, Oscott, later that afternoon the Pope spoke of how he had been particularly moved to preside over the beatification of “a saintly Englishman” whose work had exerted such a formative influence on his own thinking.
David Cameron, the Prime Minister, said farewell to the Pope at Birmingham International Airport. He observed, with some understatement, that the Holy Father had “challenged the country to sit up and think”.