Is there a “Benedict bounce” following the visit of the Holy Father to Scotland? The phrase was used by Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien referring to the new sense of enthusiasm and hope that the visit had engendered – numbers up for attendance at Mass, fresh enquiries from young men thinking about training for the priesthood, a new interest in the Catholic Faith among people who do not normally go to church at all.
There is no doubt that the Catholic communities of England, Wales and Scotland feel enormously boosted by the visit. It was an outstanding success. The media had been filled with stories suggesting that the Pope was a figure of anger and peevishness, surrounded by elaborate protocol aimed at boosting his power and status and inflating his own ego. He would, it was suggested, denounce everything about British life that normal people relished and enjoyed, and would provide scope for endless satire as he ranted around, attempting to silence everyone who did not agree with his opinions.
And then he arrived – and down from the steps of the aeroplane stepped this small, very modest figure, a kindly elderly clergyman in white, who was greeted by the Queen with mutual friendliness, spoke beautifully and movingly about Britain as a great nation, paid touching tribute to our Parliamentary heritage and democratic institutions, radiated warmth with beautiful smiles, and was suddenly a focus of friendly attention everywhere.
Within an hour of the Royal greeting, he was being driven through Edinburgh through vast cheering crowds, had donned a tartan scarf (the Scots had produced a special new tartan, St Ninian’s, for the occasion – it was the saint’s feast-day), and after a lunch of haggis and neeps, and a brief rest, was celebrating Mass for thousands in Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park. It was a triumph of friendship and goodwill over propaganda and nastiness – and the whole visit was in the same spirit.
And now? Has the spirit subsided and left nothing but a gap? Not so. All the Catholic groups and organisations with which I am involved report a general sense of enthusiasm and fresh focus. Numbers are up for Mass attendance – though we don’t know how long that will last – and in the busy programme of Autumn meetings and activities with which parish life abounds, there’s definitely a quiet feeling of hope. As a Catholic journalist, I am involved in all sorts of talks, events, and conferences – sometimes there is an expectation of low attendance, especially on a dark and wet evening in some ordinary and uninspiring venue. But it hasn’t been like that over the past month – quite the contrary. A talk on John Henry Newman in a suburban parish hall, a parents’ evening at a Catholic school discussing how to raise Catholic teenagers and pass on the Faith to them, a lecture in Parliament on medical ethics – over a wide range of events, some grand and some very ordinary, attendance has been good and spirits high.
Can we work on this? Of course. We badly needed a boost – things are depressing generally. The latest statistic: the most popular boys’ name in Britain for newborns in 2009 was Mohammed. The young Christians growing up in Britain today are going to need courage, faith and great zeal in the years ahead.
Over the next weeks, I’ll be reporting on how things go – perhaps a first test of the new-found hope will be the annual Towards Advent Festival of Catholic Culture in Westminster Cathedral Hall on November 6. Watch this space.