The timing was unintentionally bad, and courage was required to hold to it. As the world’s headlines screamed about revelations of child abuse by priests, and the Pope prepared to issue his strongly-worded letter to the Catholics of Ireland, and every opinion and prejudice and just and unjust accusation about the Church was voiced anew across the Internet, the Bishops of England and Scotland held a press conference to announce a Papal visit.
Plans for the visit could not have been announced at a worse time – and yet, in the end, this may simply serve to give the visit added purpose, importance, and poignancy. Pope Benedict XVI is visiting Britain in September to beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman. This great Englishman, so hideously misunderstood in his day, so luminous in his writing, so patient under stress, is to be formally declared Blessed. Accused during his lifetime of being both obdurately Catholic and hopelessly liberal, a man of great intellect who was derided and denounced by men who had not actually listened to what he had to say, a priest with a serenity in the face of pressure that was extraordinary in it quality, a man of prayer who was able to lead many to God, here is a man whose life and example can inspire many in 2010 and in the years ahead.
It will be tough preparing for Pope Benedict’s visit. He is, in general, seen as a deeply good man, and one who lives by the highest values. There is recognition of his personal blamelessness in the issues that have come to light over recent days. But the bad publicity surrounding all things Catholic will reverberate throughout the spring and summer. In April will come the trial of the – alas British – Lefebvrist Bishop Williamson, whose rants about Jewish people and attempts to deny the Holocaust brought worldwide headlines a year ago. His horrible views – denounced by the Pope – will be repeated as being those of a bona fide prelate rather than one of illicit standing. (It would help if the Lefebvrists had denounced Williamson’s views in the same strong terms as the Pope – to date, they haven’t).
But ghastly sex scandals, with reams of information dating back to the 1940s, are of infinitely worse significance. It is now tragically clear that the profound apologies led by Pope John Paul II at the time of the Millenium – remember when people said they thought they were exaggerated and unnecessary? – for the Church’s faults and failings down the centuries, were prophetic and timely.
The mass media, including the Internet, is the main battleground for hearts and minds. Among the general public, there is poor understanding of the Church and its message. People tend to take for granted the good things that the Catholic Church actually does in a local area – schools, projects for the homeless and elderly and needy, fundraising for victims of war or natural disasters, and more. Instead, opinions on religious issues are forged by headlines, and especially by anything with the word “sex” in it. And since the Church on earth will always have sinners in it, discovery of sin in the Church is always going to be possible — and denouncing sin to a society which increasingly sees atheism as the norm and religion as an oddity is going to be easy.
Catholics in Britain – and everywhere – who long for this visit to be a success, and to bear spiritual fruits, will need to pray a great deal in the weeks and months to come.