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In Britain, Despite Protests, Pope Gets a Fair Hearing
John Thavis
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Wednesday, September 22, 2010
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LONDON (CNS)—In terms of his primary objectives—preaching the Gospel to his flock and defending the influence of religion in society—Pope Benedict XVI can look at his four-day visit to Great Britain as a major success.

The big question going into the Sept. 16-19 visit was whether the German pope would be given a fair hearing in a country where skepticism about religion runs high. The answer was a resounding "yes." Not only did the pope speak his mind, but he also received unprecedented gavel-to-gavel coverage in the British media.

Papal events were broadcast live, and every newspaper devoted several pages each day to the pope's words, which focused largely on the right of the church to have its voice heard in the public square. Some newspapers even published full texts of his major speeches and sermons—something that rarely happens on papal trips.

The flip side of such interest was that the pope's critics also had their day in the limelight. Thousands of protesters took to the streets in peaceful but vehement dissent on issues ranging from AIDS and condoms to the church's record on sex abuse.

Vatican officials said they accepted this as a part of public debate in Britain.
"We expected this. We know there are groups that have differences with the Catholic Church, and they have a right to express it. But in general, the attitude of British society and the faithful has been positive," Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, told reporters.

Not surprisingly, the image of the 83-year-old pontiff seemed to soften during his stay. Many people, Catholics and non-Catholics, often react to sound bites and headlines in forming opinions about Pope Benedict. When he comes to visit, they get a firsthand look and a double dose of content—something that usually works in the pope's favor.

What also impressed the British was the pope's patient and gentle manner, which contrasted with the frequently strident tone of his critics. The pope has "a shyness that attracts," a commentator said.

"A guest who took the time to charm his guests" read one newspaper headline after the pope lingered with schoolchildren in a London suburb, listening to their testimonials and posing for pictures. His smile seemed genuine, and why not? He was looking out at a sea of banners and posters that offered friendship in language like, "We (heart) U Papa."

Pope Benedict came to Britain as a teacher, and his lesson plan was clear from the beginning.

In a meeting Sept. 16 with Queen Elizabeth II and about 400 civic and cultural leaders in Edinburgh, Scotland, he warned against "aggressive" forms of secularism that risk undermining traditional religious values.

His words came across as reasonable and respectful largely because he drew examples of Christian cultural contributions from British history—the selfless service of Florence Nightingale, for example, or the missionary David Livingstone's efforts to stop the slave trade. And when describing "atheist extremism," he said the most sobering example was the Nazi regime, striking a chord with Britons as they commemorated the 70th anniversary of massive Nazi air strikes against the country.

In Glasgow, he donned a Tartan scarf and listened to bagpipe bands, then told Catholics it was not enough to live their faith privately; they should defend the church's teachings in the public square, he said.

"There are some who now seek to exclude religious belief from public discourse, to privatize it or even to paint it as a threat to equality and liberty. Yet religion is in fact a guarantee of authentic liberty and respect," he said at a Mass with more than 80,000 people.

The pope's words were clearly aimed at critics such as Richard Dawkins, the popular British author who has championed atheism and who considers religion a destructive force in society. But the pope's most eloquent answer to high-profile atheists came in his meeting Sept. 17 in London with some 4,000 young Catholic students, when he described belief in God as a "friendship" that can fill one's life with love of virtue.

"We need to have the courage to place our deepest hopes in God alone, not in money, in a career, in worldly success or in our relationships with others, but in God. Only he can satisfy the deepest needs of our hearts," he said.

The keynote address of the papal visit came in Westminster Hall later that day, where the pope laid out his vision of how religious belief can help shape the moral and ethical life of a society. He warned against an effort to marginalize religion, and he pointed to an example that resonated with many: the campaign by some groups to ban public celebration of Christmas.

In his meetings with Anglicans, the pope deliberately steered clear of ecumenical differences and instead underlined the common task of fighting for the voice of religion in public affairs. In ecumenical terms, he made his biggest impact simply by his historic presence in two places never before visited by a pope: Lambeth Palace, where he met with Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, and Westminster Abbey, where he joined an Anglican prayer service that a Vatican aide later described as liturgically "wonderful."

The beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Birmingham Sept. 19 was the central religious event of the visit. The pope held up Blessed Newman as an inspiration in two significant ways: in the wider culture, for his vision of religion's "vital" role in society; and in the church, for his vision of Catholic laity who know their faith well and can defend it articulately.

The pope's arguments about God, religion and the social order were much-debated in the media, and not everyone agreed with him. But as British Prime Minister David Cameron said in a departure ceremony, the pope's words had challenged the whole country to "sit up and think."

Finally, the British trip underscored that the priestly sex abuse crisis will never go away when Pope Benedict is on the public stage. The pope has embraced that fact, as illustrated by his decision to address the issue on his plane, at his only public Mass in London and in a private meeting with sex abuse victims.

He used dramatic language, expressing his "deep sorrow and shame" and acknowledging the failings of priests and the failure of church officials to respond to abuse allegations with enough speed and vigilance. That was not enough for some sex abuse advocacy groups and other critics, who called for greater church accountability during a large protest demonstration in downtown London.

The image of thousands of protesters marching through the streets is not one Vatican officials will put on the highlight reels of this trip, but it illustrated the price to be paid in a pluralistic society if the church wants to be part of the public discourse.

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