Pope Benedict XVI. Wikimedia Commons

The Success of a Presence

Against expectation, the four-day papal journey was welcomed by thousands. The cultural and political world were challenged by the Pope’s message. He spoke to the heart of every man and woman, in a country where Catholics are only 9% of the population.
Roger Sylvester

“I am very much looking forward to my visit to the United Kingdom.” Before his visit started, there was a distinct impression that the Holy Father’s enthusiasm was not shared by the British people, and certainly not by the mass media. Atheist groups claimed they were planning to arrest the Pope for “crimes against humanity.” In these difficult economic times, the cost of the visit to the taxpayer was also used as an objection (although nobody seems to have had such scruples about the cost of visits by other world leaders in the past). The media certainly played their part in giving the appearance of hostility, with Channel 4 choosing a notorious gay rights activist to make a “documentary” which attempted to portray the Church as a force for evil in the world. As the date of the visit approached, supportive signs could also be found. The Evangelical Alliance, a Protestant grouping, called on Christians of all denominations to support the Pope’s visit, while the Chief Rabbi wrote, “The current Pope is more than the leader of the largest religious community in the world. He is also a significant public intellectual with a strong sense of history.” Even some journalists noticed the unreasonableness of the hostility, to the point of writing that “those who oppose Pope Benedict XVI’s visit are the real bigots.” A BBC filmmaker wrote an article describing how making a documentary about the Pope had caused him to change his mind.

One innovation of this visit was the formation of Catholic Voices, a group of ordinary Catholics who made themselves available to speak in TV and radio interviews. Chris, from the London CL community, took part in several debates throughout the visit. “It was a call to take my faith more seriously, and realise what a gift it is. Our society has such a need for the Church.”

There were also positive signs at a cultural level: The Victoria & Albert Museum and the Vatican Museums joined forces to display the Sistine Chapel tapestries alongside the original full-sized drawings for the first time in centuries. A new tartan was designed in Scotland, with colours chosen for their significance (including white and yellow for the Vatican, red for Cardinal Newman, and blue-on-white for Scotland). All the members of the Scottish Parliament received a tie or scarf with the new design.

The visit was conducted with tight security, such that to go to the beatification Mass you have to travel in the middle of the night, on an official coach–having submitted your name long in advance–and bring your passport with you. Patricia explains: “Being a Catholic in England, you feel a bit of a minority, under siege all the time. These security requirements leave you feeling under siege even now. When we all went to Rome in 2007, it all seemed so much easier; a simple thing to do. Seeing the Pope in Rome feels quite natural; seeing him here in Birmingham feels quite extraordinary.”

This was a State visit–Pope Benedict was officially invited by the Queen. For this reason, the visit started in Scotland, where the Queen usually resides at this time of year. Upon arrival in Edinburgh, he received a warm welcome from the Queen, whose speech highlighted “our common Christian heritage” and the important role the Church plays in British society. Already the impression of universal hostility was starting to crumble, and it was weakened further by the Holy Father’s evident humanity and affection for the local people as he rode in the Pope-mobile through Edinburgh, wearing a scarf of the new tartan, and when he stopped to kiss or bless the children.

In the evening, the Pope arrived at the Nunciature, his residence for the duration of the stay. A few of us joined the crowd outside the building. When we unfurled our big “Communion and Liberation” banner, a police officer asked, “Is this saying something good, or something bad?” We explained that CL was a movement in the Church, and he went to check with the organisers if it was okay for us to show it. The answer came back quickly: “Perfectly okay!” Some people in the crowd helped hold the banner; this became an opportunity to speak to them about who we were. And then the motorcade arrived; the Pope got out of the car to tremendous cheers from the crowd, and entered the building. He later appeared at the upper window . “We only saw him for about ten seconds,” recalls Francesco, “but it was worth it. His smile was amazing. There were people from many different backgrounds, but he was a clear point of unity for us all.”
Further afield, people were also noting the event that is happening in our midst. Dominic, from Yorkshire, said, before Sunday’s event, “I was struck by how we stayed together as a community. We went to Mass together and then did School of Community. Everyone wanted to talk about what had struck us. Our priest has been incredible, it was evident in him that sense of being in the presence of Peter, and therefore Christ. Despite the obvious difficulties we will face and the tiredness (and maybe cold and wet) that we will face, I do not want to be anywhere else on Sunday but in Cofton Park to be with Peter for a few hours–and anyway, if my 87-year-old grandma can come with the full awareness of why she is coming, I hope I can have and maintain a fraction of that same awareness.”

In Yellow and White
The second day started with a meeting on education. It took the form of an assembly where some 3,000 Catholic schoolchildren met with the Pope, while all the Catholic schools in the country watched via live video. Inevitably, this involved the families in the community, with our children dressed in yellow and white for a very special day at school. One of the children of the London community, eight-year-old Tommy, was able to attend in person as one of the four representatives of his school. The Pope’s address to the pupils was expressed very simply, but brought home to me his affection for us, and the greatness of the message he brings to our country. “Happiness is something we all want, but many people never find it, because they look for it in the wrong places. True happiness is to be found in God. Only He can satisfy the deepest needs of our heart.” For one family, it was a particularly special time, as their baby was born that day. “Shall we call her Benedetta Josepha?” asked the text message announcing the birth.

Saturday night saw a vigil in London’s Hyde Park with tens of thousands of young people. The crowd was really enthusiastic, erupting in a huge cheer when the Holy Father invited them to the World Youth Day in Madrid. This tumult quickly became a profound silence when he asked us to join him in praying before the Blessed Sacrament. As Amos recounts: “It was clear the Pope was here not to point to himself but to Christ. This was particularly evident during the vigil, when the Pope spent some time in adoration and invited everyone present to do the same.”

The highlight of the visit was the beatification of Cardinal Newman. The motto of the Pope’s visit was “Heart speaks unto heart,” a translation of Newman’s own motto: “Cor ad Cor loquitur.” Arriving at the site of the open-air Mass, we joined the enormous flow of pilgrims. We then had to wait for hours under the rain but, amazingly, the rain cleared just as the papal helicopter arrived. In a way, this seemed emblematic of the visit as a whole–the doubts and polemics disappeared in front of the event of a presence. As the Pope approached us, our great banner was held up again. Then, a surprise! The Pope-mobile stopped in front of us and the Holy Father kissed and blessed eight-week-old baby Florian. As his father Derek recounts: “It was a difficult decision to attend the Beatification Mass, given the logistics of bringing five young children to the event. Not only were Gisele and I awestruck by this intimate encounter with such a holy, incredible man, but we understand this event to be an extra special grace and an experience that the whole family will own and cherish forever.”

The beatification homily picked up several of the themes the Pope had been teaching us during the visit. As Amos explains, “Throughout these days, the Pope has continued to speak about the relationship between faith and reason and about education and has pointed to Newman as a source of insight into these areas. The closeness of these things to our own experience is a great provocation to rediscover Newman as a help for us in Britain to live Fr. Giussani’s charism more fully.”

The Pope’s joyful serenity and certainty in the One he announces really moved us over the four days, just as they did so many of our fellow countrymen, who only knew the media caricatures. Truly, “heart speaks unto heart.”