London Catholics are getting ready to welcome Pope Benedict – but there’s a feeling of worry in the air. There is much talk of security, and many prayers are going up for the Holy Father’s safety while he is in England. And there is also expectation among Catholics of a massive media onslaught against the Church and especially against traditional Christian moral teachings – with strident opinion-pieces denouncing the Church for hypocrisy, with much highlighting of clerical sins.
Secularist and homosexual-rights lobbyists have threatened demonstrations, and some of the language they are using is crude, vulgar and even menacing. At a more absurd level, campaigners in favour of women priests have announced that they have rented advertising space on London buses for the duration of the visit to promote their view.
Young Catholics, on the other hand, are upbeat and keen to show their support and loyalty to the Holy Father – a team of enthusiasts will be running an internet-based radio station, “Hearts speaks unto Heart,” for the duration of the visit, and are already putting together interviews, songs, and other features. Catholic organisations are busy with arrangements for the Prayer Vigil in Hyde Park which will feature a line-up of groups from across Britain, each carrying its own banner. Westminster Cathedral awaits the Holy Father’s arrival for a special Mass, and he will also be praying at an ecumenical gathering at Westminster Abbey, where Britain’s monarchs have been crowned for centuries.
And, for a specially invited group of people from a range of different groups, together with Members of Parliament and others active in public life, there is the special privilege of taking part in something utterly unique: the successor of St Peter speaking to a great gathering in Westminster Hall. This is the place, echoing with history, where St Thomas More was tried, where Sir Winston Churchill’s body lay in state, where monarchs have marked jubilees, where great events have been played out down the centuries. The wide stone-flagged floor and great Norman arches ensure that its vastness is always cool even on the hottest day. At one end, it opens on to the courtyard where a fountain plays in the shadow of Big Ben, and, at the other end, it is dominated by a glowing stained-glass window bearing the coats-of-arms of the sons of members of the House of Lords who fell in the First World War.
A huge weight of responsibility lies on the shoulders of the Holy Father at all times. When he speaks in London that weight will lie more heavily than ever: his every word and every nuance will be noted, his every gesture discussed for its significance.
Trusting in God, and giving himself, as always, wholly into His loving care, Benedict XVI will be approaching this visit to Britain with the serenity born of faith and courage. Devout Catholics will be surrounding him with prayer all the time he is with us. We are invoking the intercession of the English saints and martyrs, and of Our Lady, for his protection. This is a man with a message that Britain badly needs, a man totally committed to the cause of Christ, who seeks to spread goodwill and to foster all that is good. Pray for Pope Benedict as this visit to Britain draws nearer.