Pope Benedict XVI rested at the Papal Summer Residence at Castelgandolfo after completing a four day visit to the United Kingdom. In comments to the media before the Pope’s departure from Birmingham Sunday evening, Vatican Press office director Fr. Federico Lombardi, hailed the visit ‘an extraordinary’ success.
He spoke of the Pope’s gratitude and joy at the welcome he had received and of the three great themes of this visit: the need for courageous witnesses to the Gospel in today’s society, the importance of ecumenical dialogue and healing for victims and the Church, in the wake of the scandal of sexual abuse by clergy.
“Like all papal visits, this four day trip to the United Kingdom has entailed a fairly punishing schedule for the Pope, with three big open air events, encounters with the Queen and government leaders, with heads of other Christian churches and religious faiths, as well as a series of meetings and Masses with the local Catholic community.
And like most papal visits these days, before it began there were real concerns about a hostile reception from some sectors and a certain amount of apathy from a country where all people of faith are routinely sidelined in the pubic arena, despite the Church of England being the official state religion.
And it’s true, those opposing the Pope did stage a march through central London bearing banners or placards with pictures of child abuse victims. Ahead of his arrival in Edinburgh on Thursday there were a few TV commentators and newspaper columnists outlining their gripes against the church and its teachings.
But it’s also striking the way in which those voices have been progressively drowned out by cheering crowds and positive media coverage as this visit has progressed. Even some of the most cynical observers, I see have grudgingly conceded that the man they described as a ‘dry authoritarian teacher’ has proved himself to be more of a caring father figure, taking time to greet local families, security staff and others involved in the organisation of each event.
Not only have the flag-waving, photo snapping crowds shown a surprisingly warm welcome to the Pope, they’ve also paid significant attention to what he actually had to say. After the singing and cheering of crowds in Bellahouston, Cofton or Hyde Park, at St Mary’s college or outside Westminster Cathedral, you could have heard a pin drop as the Pope spoke to them about the need to seek out the love of God in our hearts and to share that love with those we encounter in our daily lives.
I’ve also been impressed on this trip by the clear, simple language the Pope has used to speak to the heart of people in Britain, talking frankly to residents of an old peoples’ home about the joys and struggles that old age brings, to the youngsters at St Mary’s about the challenges of being a good Christian in today’s celebrity culture or to the bishops at his final encounter about the need to be a prophetic voice for the poor and marginalised. He’s also been outspoken about the sex abuse scandals and the inadequate ways it was handled by church leaders, listening to victims’ stories and encouraging child protection workers. Even in the hallowed Westminster Hall, where Thomas More followed his conscience at the cost of his life, the Pope spoke clearly of the ethical issues at the heart of political and public life today, saying religion is not a problem to be solved but a vital contributor to the national conversation.”
Proof of just how much his message has been taken to heart here came in the closing moments of this visit at Birmingham airport, where Prime Minister David Cameron stressed the vision and the values shared by Britain and the Holy See. He said while people may not always agree with all of the church’s teachings, this historic visit has helped people of all faiths and none to pose the most searching questions about how we treat ourselves and each other. “Faith,” he said, “is an integral part of the fabric of this country, always has been and always will be.”