Britain prepares for Benedict XVI's visit

Britain prepares for Benedict XVI's visit

Joanna Bogle

Pope Benedict XVI is due to visit the UK from 16-19 September. Joanna Bogle, one of England's leading Catholic writers and commentators, analyses the preparations for the Papal visit, the secular media's often hostile and ill-informed coverage, and the efforts of orthodox Catholics to ensure a successful visit, such as through a Sponsored Silence in solidarity with the Pope.

In July I spent a day in complete silence. I did it in solidarity with the Pope.

Let me explain. As a very talkative woman, I felt that doing a Sponsored Silence would be something specific that I could offer as a fund-raiser for the visit of Pope Benedict to Britain. The costs of the visit have been spiralling, and Catholics have been urged to help out as much as they can.

But there was something more. Massive anti-Catholic outbursts from committed atheists, led by Richard Dawkins, and the cynical use of material relating to the evil sexual activities of some clergy, have combined to foster a mood of opposition to the Papal visit which was in any case likely to develop as plans for this State occasion emerged at a time of recession and projected economic hardship.

Many Catholics have been worried that there might be physical attacks on the Holy Father during his visit. Certainly there have been voices raised by campaigners suggesting that the Pope should not be allowed to speak out freely, and that public proclamation of the Church's teachings — notably on the wrongfulness of homosexual activity — should be subjected to restrictions. So my Day of Silence — organised with the support of the team at Westminster Cathedral — was to highlight the danger of the Holy Father being silenced, and to spend time in prayer for the success of his visit.

It turned out to be a beautiful and moving experience. A chapel was set aside, announcements were made at all the Masses, many came to join me in silent prayer, and large sums of money went into the donations box. I remained silent from 8am to 8pm, and must honestly say that I cherished every moment and will long remember it as a day spent in prayer, reading (I had my Bible and other suitable books) and quiet reflection against the background of the round of Sunday Masses at London's busiest place of worship.

The 2010 Papal visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain certainly needed prayer from the outset. The image of the Holy Father in Britain is one carved by TV and press reports referring to his German nationality, his alleged harshness towards dissenting theologians, and his affirmation of orthodox Christian teaching on sexual morality. Headlines such as “Pope parks his tanks on Anglican lawn” ( The Times) hailed the Papal offer to Anglicans to form their own Anglican-rite ordinariate within the Catholic Church.

He is presented as cold-hearted and unapproachable and it is rare to find a reference to him in a main-stream newspaper which does not refer to the fact that he was a teen-ager in Nazi-era Germany. They ignore his anti-Nazi credentials, his decades-long work for Christian-Jewish relations which launched the ground-breaking visit of Pope John Paul to Rome's synagogue, his encyclicals on love and hope.

They ignore his personal charm and gentleness, his academic brilliance, his books, his ecumenical outreach, and his rapport with the young — this last a fruit of his many years working with students at universities, and much in evidence at gatherings in Rome and at World Youth Days in Sydney and Cologne.


The invitation for the Pope to visit Britain was issued by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and seems to have been an attempt to win support from disaffected Scottish Catholics. It failed in this, and the May election saw Mr Brown ousted from Downing Street — but by then the machinery for a State visit was rolling.

Fiasco after fiasco dogged the project from the beginning — chief being the discovery of a Foreign Office memorandum urging that the Holy Father be invited to open an abortion clinic and officiate at a same-sex Civil Union. A cynical joke? Or evidence of bizarre thinking at the Foreign Office? Or perhaps a mixture of both?

Formal apologies to the Holy See were accepted by the latter, and mild reprimands seem to have been given to the staff involved, but the lingering taste is a nasty one: we have seen how today's politically-correct civil servants talk and plan, and it is deeply unpleasant.

The arrival of a new Government saw some welcome changes, notably the appointment of the Catholic Lord (Chris) Patten to oversee the State Visit arrangements. But there have also been problems on the Church side — citing concerns over safety and security, with numbers at all Papal events to be severely restricted, and parishes reduced to allocating tickets by ballot. At one stage, the Bishops of England and Wales were even urging people to stay at home and watch the events on TV. This produced an outcry.

Catholics in Britain are loyal to the Pope: the particular historical conditions in which the Faith has survived mean that there is a deep-rooted sense of commitment to the bond with the successor of St Peter which cuts across divisions of opinion on topics such as liturgy and even moral teachings.

People who don't go to Mass every Sunday, whose commitment to the teachings of the Church leaves much to be desired, whose knowledge of some doctrines might be confused, nevertheless know that they are Catholic and want to affirm it. They want to stand and cheer the Pope, they see him as the successor of St Peter and as tangible evidence of the reality of a Church that has withstood all the ravages of history and binds them to the heroism of the martyrs.

This may seem paradoxical. It is certainly sometimes irritating to orthodox Catholics who truly honour the Church's teachings and try to live by them. But it is a reality of Catholic life in Britain: there is a sense of loyalty to the Church that is connected with a sense of commitment to an unbroken bond with St Thomas More and the heroic martyrs of the Elizabethan era and the years that followed, and this may be – irritatingly – combined with a failure to recognise the truth and beauty of Humanae Vitae, and a blithe disregard for the importance of daily prayer, regular confession, or even attendance at Sunday Mass.

But it is precisely this loyalty which will, eventually, be part of the legacy of this Papal visit. Despite the mess and muddle, despite the vile nonsense from the Foreign Office and the inept planning of the Bishops, despite the crude anti-Catholic campaigns of Dawkins and his allies, despite the failure of the Vatican's own public relations team over the past few years, this visit will prove a blessing in the long term.

The faithful will be affirmed, the nation will hear from a man of great holiness and wisdom, John Henry Newman will be beatified and his writings, which have already been an inspiration to the Second Vatican Council, will speak to new generations with renewed vigour. There will be public witness to the Christian faith and people of goodwill will see beyond the media headlines and recognise that the Church isn't going to go away and that the Pope is a man of faith and courage whose presence speaks of love and duty, hope and peace.

During Holy Week and Easter this year, the massive campaigns against the Church and the Pope, focussing on the evil actions of sexually sinful priests, continued day after day. But in Britain attendance at Catholic churches for all the Holy Week services rose rather than fell.

Some months back, when the relics of St Thérèse were brought to Britain, vast crowds gathered at churches and cathedrals to venerate them, vigils, Masses and prayer-services were packed, and baffled TV crews reported on what seemed to be an inexplicable event.

Religion is not like politics: it has its own dynamic, it rests on something other than media comment and current trends. In years to come, the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain will continue to resonate. Watch and pray.

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