The Bishop of Ebbsfleet reviews the Papal Visit

We know that this was a State Visit – the first such by a pope. We know too

that the visit began in Scotland not only because the Queen tends to be there at this time of year but also because her looser relationship with the Presbyterian Church of Scotland was less complicating than her relationship with the Church of England of whom, under Christ, she is, as finessed by the first Queen Elizabeth, ‘Supreme Governor’. This was the meeting of two heads of State, then, not the meeting of Christ’s Vicar and the Supreme Governor who rules a national church on his behalf.

In the Pope’s words it was ‘a historic event marking a new important phase in the long and complex history of relations between [the British] people and the Holy See’. Of his meeting with the Queen in Edinburgh on 16th September Pope said, ‘it was a highly cordial meeting, characterised by a deep and mutual concern for the wellbeing of the peoples of the world and for the role of Christian values in society’.

Not surprisingly the Pope summed up his visit – and here we are looking at the aspect of the visit that the British State funded and Lord Patten deftly organised – as confirming his ‘profound conviction that the old nations of Europe possess a Christian soul which merges with the “genius” and history of their respective peoples, and the Church never ceases to work to keep this spiritual and cultural tradition alive’. That is not to overstate the remarkable encounter at Westminster, where a largely secular audience, not le beau monde of agnostic academia admittedly, but the sceptical great and good of civil society, gathered to hear the only religious leader who can still draw vast crowds. Benedict’s own account of the meeting was that he underlined ‘the fact that religion, for lawmakers, must nor represent a problem to be resolved, but a factor that makes a vital contribution to the nation’s historical progress and public debate, especially by recalling the essential importance of ensuring an ethical foundation for choices made in the various areas of social life’. Insisting on the place of religion with the public square, a space is claimed for Faith to explain itself and convince by the power of reason. Thus Catholic social teaching, and controversial Catholic ethical teaching – on the family, on the dignity of life – is not relegated to eccentric households and annual nostalgia for the mumbo-jumbo of Christmas.

It isn’t quite possible to divide the Papal visit into the State Visit and the Pastoral Visit. After Holyrood and the Queen, the Pope went on to Belhouston Park, Glasgow, where he celebrated the Mass of St Ninian, who brought the Gospel to Scotland.

Here, said the Pope, he ‘recalled the importance of the evangelisation of culture, especially in our own time in which an insidious relativism threatens to darken the unchanging truth about the nature of man’. Relativism – ‘your truth is as good as my truth: there is no such thing as the truth’ – is seen by the Pope as the enemy of the Gospel. Relativism is the sin of Pontius Pilate: when Jesus says to him, ‘Every one who is of the truth hears my voice’, Pilate asks ‘What is truth?’ The world of ancient classical civilization is not so very different from the contemporary secular world. The message of the Pastoral Visit is the same as that of the State Visit.

Having won the Scots by going to Scotland first, Benedict XVI went on to London. Here there was a meeting with the world of Catholic education, in which he enlarged on ‘the importance of the faith in forming mature and responsible citizens.’ ‘I encouraged the many adolescents and young people who welcomed me with warmth and enthusiasm’, he said, ‘not to follow limited goals, or to satisfy themselves with comfortable choices but to aim at something greater: the search for true happiness which is to be found only in God.’ There was then a meeting with leaders of other religions in which he ‘pointed out the ineluctable need for sincere dialogue, which in order to be fruitful requires respect for the principle of reciprocity.’ At the same time, he ‘identified the search for the sacred as a ground common to all religions, upon which to build up friendship, trust and collaboration’.

Of particular interest to Anglicans and other Christians were the ecumenical encounters. There was a ‘fraternal visit to the Archbishop of Canterbury’, ‘an opportunity to underline the shared commitment to bear witness to the Christian message which unites Catholics and Anglicans.’ This preceded the meeting in the Great Hall of the British parliament and was succeeded by the praying of Vespers with the Christian communities of the United Kingdom in Westminster Abbey. This first visit made there by a Successor of Peter, ‘marked an important moment in relations between the Catholic community and the Anglican Communion’, Pope Benedict said, but, to this observer, the encounter seemed different. My name is Peter, the Pope seemed to be saying, and this abbey church of St Peter really ought to belong to me once more. In response, the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested that Peter was welcome to visit, but unless he refashioned his job description, he could not be more than a visitor. So, no change there…

The climax of the visit was the beatification in Cofton Park, Birmingham, preceded by a special prayer vigil the previous evening in Hyde Park, London. The multitude of the faithful were gathered round the world’s parish priest. In his own words, summing up the whole visit, he ‘presented the shining example of Cardinal Newman, intellectual and believer, whose spiritual message can be summed up in his the witness that the way of knowledge does not mean closing in on oneself; rather it means openness, conversion and obedience to Him Who is the Way, the Truth and the Life’.