How to describe the wonderful events of recent days, with the visit of the Holy Father to Britain? It has all been magnificent – and the greatest thing about it all by far was the way in which, from the moment the Pope arrived, everything changed.
That day, news bulletins had been highlighting not so much his visit, but the opinion and reactions of leading homosexual-rights campaigners and organisers of atheist groups who planned a protest demonstration. The significance of the visit – its setting in the historical situation of Christianity in Britain, the events of the 16th century, the tensions today with an increasingly secular culture – were not discussed. All we seemed to get was endless discussion about contraception and homosexual activity.
There was also, of course, a great deal on the subject of priests who have sexually molested children. These evil deeds, of course, merit much highlighting, but it was odd to have the discussion dominated by leading atheist campaigners who have never mentioned the subject before, and lobbyists whose opinions about sexual activity and the young have previously been rather more ambivalent.
From the moment the Pope arrived on British soil, everything changed. The Queen and Prince Philip welcomed him in Scotland with smiles and warmth; there were bands and all the splendour of a State greeting; then, he was taken to the Popemobile and out into the city of Edinburgh. And what a joyful procession it became! Cheering crowds were lining the street, babies were held up for him to kiss and bless, groups surged forward to call out greetings; everything had erupted into the most wonderful of welcomes.
On to Glasgow, where thousands attended a glorious Mass at Bellahouston Park – and, by now, media commentators were scrapping their pre-arranged scripts and doing some wholesale rewriting.
It has been a triumph! In London, history was made as the Pope spoke in Westminster Hall, addressing a gathering that included Members of Parliament, leading figures in public life, and representatives of the nation’s charities, church organisations, and community groups. As he arrived, trumpets were sounded; the trumpeters standing in the niches of the great stained-glass window through which radiant light pours into the great Medieval hall. The arches of the great hammerbeam roof have echoed to the great events of British history, notably the trial of St Thomas More, the most significant event of the reign of King Henry VIII.
For a Pope to speak here, having just come from Westminster Abbey, where he prayed alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury, is something of huge, almost indescribable, significance. The sorrows, tensions, cruelties, and passions that have marked the division of Christianity in Britain since the events of the reign of Henry VIII have defined our history. As Benedict XVI stood there, a slight, humble figure, speaking about faith and reason, about truth and human value and the common good, a great healing was taking place, and something gigantic was happening.
In the streets, people with anti-Papal placards were hugely outnumbered by the joyful and enthusiastic crowds of well-wishers, and by the exuberant young Catholics who carried banners saying “We love U Papa Benedict” and “Welcome to Britain, Holy Father!”
And so it went on. Saturday saw a great youth festival in Hyde Park, with music, dancing, theatre and picnicking, culminating in a vigil of prayer, with the Holy Father leading some 80,000 young people in an unforgettable time of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, young faces intent and serious in the glowing candlelight.
Some of us who had been at this vigil stayed awake all night, travelling on by buses to Birmingham to join the crowds gathering in the early hours of Sunday morning for the great Mass marking the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman. A gentle rain fell as dawn slowly arrived, but this is Britain: our “pilgrim packs” included plastic macs, and there were hot drinks available, and the mood was cheerful and upbeat.
When morning broke and the hillside of Cofton Park was filled with pilgrims, the sight was a splendid one – and when the Holy Father arrived to resounding cheers and applause, the sun broke through, and a delicate rainbow arched across the sky.
As long as I live, I will never forget these days. To be in Westminster Hall, where history is written into every inch of the stone-flagged floor and rounded Norman arches, listening to the successor of St Peter speak, was thrilling. To follow this with joyful prayer with young Catholics in the heart of London was glorious, and to stand singing John Henry Newman’s wonderful hymns on an English hillside at a Papal Mass was beyond glorious.
Deo gratias. Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain has been wonderful.