When Pope John Paul II visited Britain back in 1982, I went to meet him at the airport. I wasn’t the only one, of course: I went with a parish group that took a coach to the airport at three in the morning so as to be there on time, joining vast numbers of other people who had done the same. We spent the time singing hymns and being led in prayer and chatting until the airliner arrived, and we all broke into applause and cheering and forgot to sing the special song we’d all practiced to greet the visitor to our shores.
I remember being vaguely disappointed in the visit. As an ardent young campaigner, I’d wanted the pope to come out firmly on a range of issues I saw as important: support for marriage, opposition to abortion, the importance of chastity being taught in schools, condemnation of the crudity and vulgarity in so much of our mass media. But he didn’t do that.
He spoke about Christ, about the need for prayer, about honoring Sunday. He called on Catholics in Britain to be faithful to their beliefs, to love God and neighbor, to obey the Commandments. It wasn’t campaigning stuff — it was the Christian gospel. It is only now that I realize how right he was, and how much he influenced a rising generation — not just in his visit to Britain, but in country after country across the world — that is now enriching the Church with a sense of a new springtime.
And now we look set to get another papal visit: Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. The news leaked out from 10 Downing Street when Prime Minister Gordon Brown was flying to America. The American trip didn’t start off too well — it looked as though Brown might not get a proper meeting with President Barack Obama. Commentators noted that perhaps the leak about the papal visit was a way of boosting Brown’s status.
We’ll know in due time. Meanwhile, it’s worth debunking a few papal myths — the first being that John Paul II and Benedict XVI are men with wholly different worldviews and perspectives, who were often at variance with one another, especially on issues such as ecumenism, liturgy, and the relationship between the Church and other faiths. Not so.
Under John Paul, with whom he had a close friendship, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was responsible for opening up the dialogue with Jewish people, and one of Benedict’s first acts as pope was to write to the chief rabbi of Rome, with whom he is on close terms. His first trip as pope was to his native Germany, where he addressed a large and enthusiastic crowd in a synagogue. It was his work in Christian-Jewish friendship that helped to achieve the warm relationship that was established in the 1980s and 1990s.
For both John Paul and Benedict, the great centralities were and are Christ, the Eucharist, the life of prayer. For both, the Rosary is a daily part of life. Of course, they are two very different men: John Paul was an extrovert who had worked in theatre in his youth and who wrote plays and poetry. Benedict is an academic and rather shy, although he gets on extremely well with young people, as he spent much of his life teaching at various universities.
Benedict — again in tune with John Paul — believes that all Christians should focus on Christ, not on bishops or on Church structures. He’s a believer who speaks openly about prayer, conversion of heart, openness to the gospel, and our need of salvation. He teaches — and it is a central theme of his pontificate — the centrality of liturgy as worship rather than as any sort of celebration of human community. He seeks to restore a sense of the liturgy as not something we create but as something we have been given, central to a Church which is itself something belonging to Christ.
If we are lucky enough to receive a papal visit in 2010, my guess is that Benedict will speak to people’s hearts and minds as John Paul did, but in a much more hostile atmosphere. We have had a massive upsurge in militant atheism — Richard Dawkins et al., plus the daft myths of The Da Vinci Code — and extra problems caused by the appalling anti-Semitism of the Lefebvrist Bishop Williamson, whose nasty utterances gushed filth that is still poisoning much media discussion of anything connected with the Catholic Church.
Benedict will surely speak with quiet wisdom, courtesy, and grace. He will get on well with Her Majesty the Queen — both are faithful Christian believers, reared in Christian homes with an emphasis on tradition, duty, family affection, kindliness, and deep trust in God; and both know the real meaning of duty and service and the sacrifices that these bring.
Benedict won’t denounce immoral lifestyles or focus on topics that are seen as “Catholic issues,” such as abortion or same-sex marriage. It isn’t his style to hector or cajole. And, contrary to popular mythology, he isn’t a great one for strictness, for rules and regulations. This is a scholar, an academic. He has a particular interest in fostering beauty and sincerity in worship — a dislike of gimmicks. There will be an emphasis on prayer, on the spiritual life, the journey of the soul. He will want to speak across denominational boundaries, as well as inspire the Church in the land of John Henry Cardinal Newman and the noble English Martyrs. His message will be Christ-centered — he truly does believe that this is the core of all things.
In the end, he became a priest to help bring souls to Christ. I plan to be there to greet him at the airport, and will be booking my place on the parish coach.