A pope affirming the glories of British Parliamentary democracy, and urging the nation not to marginalize Christianity or neglect the crucial role it plays in establishing human rights and freedoms. Young people kneeling in silent prayer — some 80,000 of them — in a candlelit vigil in central London. Misty rain on an English hillside, and thousands of people travelling through the night to gather there to honor the memory of a great Englishman and hear him pronounced “Blessed” by the Church. A gentle, German-accented voice honoring the heroes of the Battle of Britain, proclaiming the horror of Nazism and the valor of Britain’s stance in World War II.
The visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain brought so many extraordinary, magnificent, unforgettable moments. It was a time of grace, a time of healing, a time for an unprecedented gathering together of British history, a people somehow making peace with its past.
The mainstream media had got it all wrong in the days leading up to the visit. Everything — really everything — seemed to be about homosexual lobbyists denouncing the pope. We heard, on every newscast, about the demonstrations they’d be holding and their opinions on every subject connected with the papal visit. On the morning Pope Benedict was due to arrive, the news bulletin on the nation’s main classical music radio station informed us that he would be flying in, and then turned immediately to a lengthy comment from the leading homosexual-rights lobbyist denouncing the pope and the Church.
Then the Holy Father arrived — and it turned out that he wasn’t a ranting foreign prelate with a hate-filled agenda, but a small, gentle-looking, elderly retired professor with a soft voice and a radiant smile; who blessed babies and beamed at everyone; who spoke graciously and warmly to our sovereign about the great and noble traditions of our country; who celebrated the Eucharist with reverence and knelt in silent prayer of tangible intensity; who touched the hearts of the young with a loving message, calling them to know of God’s great love and to live with hope and joy.
And the crowds turned out to cheer him. All those who had been assuring us that the Church was dead, that the young simply weren’t interested, that Catholicism didn’t really exist in Britain anymore, were confounded. The young came by the thousands to pray with the Holy Father in London’s Hyde Park: They sang and danced and had fun, they picnicked and chattered and brought banners from their local parishes and Catholic groups and organizations, they cheered the Holy Father to the echo when he arrived, they joined in the prayers, they listened to his words (and gave great shouts of agreement when he invited them to join him in Madrid for the next World Youth Day), and they cascaded to their knees as he blessed them with the Blessed Sacrament, their faces suddenly sweet and solemn in the glow of candlelight and in the great silence that gently swept over the park in those moments.
The pope attended an inter-faith gathering of great joy and neighborliness — an attractive photograph showed him and the chief rabbi beaming at one another as they engaged in deep conversation, both evidently at ease and in warm accord. Out in the streets, there were crowds and cheering, banners of welcome, children held up to be blessed, reporters and broadcasters sending back reports that all was not as they had been led to believe, a cheerful sense of people coming together in friendship and goodwill.
The Holy Father addressed the nation in Westminster Hall – an extraordinary moment of history, as this is the place where St. Thomas More was sentenced to death four centuries ago for affirming the bond with the universal Church . . . and here was a pope coming in honor to address the British nation. Trumpeters heralded his arrival, standing in the arches of the great stained-glass windows through which the sunlight filled the great hall with glowing light. Gathered beneath the great hammer-beam roof and Norman arches, which have echoed to the great events of English history for nearly a thousand years, were several former prime ministers (including Lady Thatcher and Sir John Major), members of Parliament, distinguished men and women from many walks of life, and representatives of a wide range of organizations, charities, educational institutions, and community groups. The band of the Coldstream Guards played as all awaited the Holy Father — and when he arrived, all rose, and the sense of expectancy and awe was extraordinary.
In his address, the pope spoke beautifully and movingly about the great things that Britain had given to the world through her Parliamentary traditions and her upholding of freedom. He highlighted William Wilberforce as an example of one who had put his Christian convictions at the service of mankind and succeeded in abolishing the slave trade. He spoke of the impossibility of maintaining freedom and human dignity without moral values centered on truth, and of the wrongfulness of relegating religion to the private sphere, as if it had no place in the national debate and the national conscience. It was all presented with gentleness and a sense of calm that communicated itself to the audience. No histrionics, no dramatic slogans, but a sense of quiet wisdom, of thinking worth pondering, worth discussing and taking forward in due time.
Afterward, in the streets around Westminster Abbey, as the great bells rang out joyful peal after joyful peal — that most English of sounds, stirring the heart — there was a joy and friendliness, a neighborliness and sense of community, that has been missing in London for years. It has been some while since we had a great national event, and the most recent — the death of the Queen Mother back in 2001 — was a solemn one. Here was joy: Benedict took part in a joint service of prayer in the Abbey, the first pope ever to do so, and the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke words of warmth and welcome that resonated with everyone. The ghastly events of the Tudor era, with violence and martyrdom, the horrors of the execution block and the rack and the dungeon and the fires of the stake, are written into our history and our national memory. And now here was a healing, something good, something that built on the friendships established over more recent decades and now forged into a strong bond.
Will everything in Britain be different from now on? Of course not. Life trundles on. We’ve still got all our usual problems — our high crime rate, our broken families. But we’ve been reminded of the great and noble values on which a sane society needs to rest, about the need to recall spiritual things, about the fact that we should not try to pretend that we are without a religious heritage. We have seen that we can lift our minds and hearts to the things of God, that there are still huge numbers of young people who want to pray and who honor Jesus Christ and are glad to be part of His Church.
Benedict brought blessings with him — he has, in a sense, given us back a country we thought we had begun to lose and even to forget: a place of decency and neighborliness and kindness and good humor. This was a visit that rested on the goodwill and large-mindedness of great numbers of British people who too often get ignored — the people who were prepared to listen to what the pope really had to say, instead of what his opponents thought he would say; the people who liked the idea of a pope coming to visit, who thought that being reminded about Christianity was no bad thing.
As Benedict left, Prime Minister David Cameron (who had had to miss the Westminster Hall gathering, as he was attending his father’s funeral that day) spoke movingly and appropriately at the airport in farewell. He alluded to the events that have taken place in his own life this year — a new baby daughter, a much-loved father buried — and reflected that faith should not and must not be marginalized. Britain is the richer for the messages brought us by Pope Benedict XVI. Now it is up to all of us to use this inspiration to bring joy and hope to a nation that too often seems tired and dispirited, a nation that has been reminded that there are great and noble ideals and values by which we can live, and that seeking these is a task for people with large hearts and the ability to perceive wisdom and act on it. Thank you, Papa Benedict.