The first reaction of Catholics to the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to these shores must be to thank God for its extraordinary success. By the end of the triumphant first day in Scotland, it was clear that the British people were in a mood to listen to the Pope, and that excitement at his presence was bursting out in the most unlikely places. As our guest flew to London, Catholics prayed that the momentum could be sustained. In the event, it was not just sustained but continued to build. Every occasion added new significance to the visit.
In Westminster Hall, the Holy Father asked searching questions that exposed the emptiness of secularism. In Westminster Abbey, his presence seemed to revitalise that ancient building – and his Anglican listeners, too, as they realised how much their Christian witness is valued by the successor of St Peter. In Westminster Cathedral, the Pope acknowledged clearly and with shame the dreadful acts committed by clergy and religious against children; he had done so before, but his decision to do so in the context of a solemn liturgy underlined the abominable insult to the sacrifice of Christ represented by those crimes. In Hyde Park, the Pope literally exposed the heart of the Catholic faith to crowds of thousands and a television audience of millions: very deliberately, he directed our attention away from himself and towards the Blessed Sacrament. In Birmingham, he beatified John Henry Newman, personally raising to the altars a son of the Church for the first time in his pontificate. In doing so, he quoted Blessed Cardinal Newman: “I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it.”
By this visit Benedict XVI equipped us to become that laity. He was an example to priests, too, in showing how the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite can be gloriously celebrated. How fitting it would be if, from now on, priests everywhere were to follow the Holy Father’s example of facing a crucifix at Mass, thus properly orientating the celebrant towards Calvary. And, crucially, the Pope set a further example to non-believers, of a great religious leader who radiated love, communicated by his winning little smile as well as by his words. From now on, militant secularists will find it very hard to sustain their odious caricature of Joseph Ratzinger: these were a terrible four days for anti-Catholicism.
We offer our heartfelt thanks to the Catholic organisers of the visit, and also to the Queen and her Government for their hospitality: given the immense difficulties that threatened to derail everything, truly we can say that victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat. But the person who deserves our deepest gratitude is Pope Benedict, who ensured that this visit was – albeit in a very different way – as great a success as that of Pope John Paul II in 1982. Holy Father, we are missing you already.
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