The unmitigated success of Pope Benedict XVI’s four-day visit to Great Britain last month has a lot of people scratching their heads. It wasn’t supposed to be that way.
The Associated Press said the unexpectedly large turnout at papal events was “remarkable” considering Brits’ “indifference and downright hostility” in the weeks before the visit and the fact that Catholics count for just 10 percent of the population. Newsweek’s religion editor early on in the trip opined that the pope “is hitting all the wrong notes” because he seemed intent on focusing on “arcane matters of doctrine.” The warm and enthusiastic crowds that greeted the pontiff appeared not to notice.
Even Catholics who are regularly critical of the papacy seemed charmed. Catherine Pepinster, editor of The Tablet, a British Catholic weekly that leans progressive on sexual ethics and other issues, said what the trip accomplished “above all was to unify Catholics and humanize a pope who has so often been perceived as cold, aloof and authoritarian.” (Or, in the words of the Times of London, “Ratzinger the rottweiler transformed into Benny the bunny.”)
Our correspondent in London reports that it was the pope’s “gentleness, humility and joy, and the coherence and humanity of his messages,” that won over many critics, especially when contrasted with the “harsh, angry, sardonic shrillness” of the thousands who turned out to protest him, in some of the largest such demonstrations he’s experienced (see story, Page 4).
Though not quite so dramatically, Americans had some taste of that surprise success two years ago when Pope Benedict visited Washington, D.C., and New York.
Maybe England, which is regularly described as more “post-Christian” and secularized than the still religious United States, had lower expectations of the pontiff and thus more opportunity for surprise. Or maybe England’s ancient Christian roots aren’t as dead as some observers would have it.
Either way, the pope’s visit to Britain offers Catholic Americans pointers worth noting.
First, it offers hope to those who despair that the authentic Christian message doesn’t have a chance in a new media world of sniping, misinformation, superficiality and extreme contentiousness. As Britain’s prime minister told the pope at the airport departure ceremony, he made Britain “sit up and think, and that can only be a good thing.”
Second, it provides a template for successful transmission of the message in the pluralistic public square: educated, courteous, humble, positive. In many ways, the pope channeled Cardinal John Henry Newman, whose beatification was the main purpose of the trip, and his vision of a Catholic laity that is “not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand.” (That’s a model worth cultivating for debates within the Church, too.)
Third, we might benefit from the pontiff’s witness and tribute to courage. He hailed the dogged pursuit of truth that led Blessed Newman to the Catholic Church, at considerable personal cost. And the 83-year-old pontiff himself displayed a courage worth imitating by venturing into a sometimes hostile environment to preach the Gospel, when his personal preference probably would have been to stay at his desk in the Vatican and write another book.
The pope’s visit poses a challenge to us, too: Do we preach the Gospel, and do we do it with the same preparation, politeness and joy?
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.