Britain makes room for BenedictFATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA
Benedict is the great Catholic thinker of his generation, a writer of limpid style and the simplicity only achieved by those who have reached the far side of scholarly wisdom. Newman was that for the 19th century.
The elevation of Newman to the honour of the altars capped a successful visit to Britain – a surprise to those anxious after months of hostile criticism. Benedict's gentle shyness and exquisite good manners endeared him to the British people, even as he presented them with a clear challenge about the danger of driving faith out of their public life.
Those manners were on display yesterday, as the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain was observed nationwide.
"For me, as one who lived and suffered through the dark days of the Nazi regime in Germany, it is deeply moving to be here with you on this occasion, and to recall how many of your fellow citizens sacrificed their lives, courageously resisting the forces of that evil ideology," said the German pontiff, in another astonishing historical moment on this first state visit for a pope.
Benedict did not come here to address the challenge of secular fundamentalism in Britain; the primary purpose of the trip was to beatify Cardinal Newman. Once that decision was made, the rest of the visit was built around it, and the secularist challenge followed. It is hard to overestimate the importance of Newman to Benedict himself, and to English-speaking Catholics the world over. After his election in 2005, Benedict decided not to preside over beatification ceremonies himself, leaving it to local bishops instead.
That he made an exception for the great 19th-century theologian and priest indicates his esteem for Newman, – one of his intellectual "heroes" since his days as a student.
John Henry Newman was arguably the greatest English thinker of the 19th century – and certainly the greatest master of English prose style in the long history of his country. A celebrated Anglican cleric and scholar at Oxford as young man, Newman was the living example of what Benedict said to the Queen, namely that "the Christian message has been an integral part of the language, thought and culture of the peoples of these islands for more than a thousand years."
So when he decided to forfeit his position and prestige in 1845 to become a Catholic, it was a decisive moment for English-speaking Catholics. Always a minority outside of Ireland – in England, America, Canada, India, Africa – English-speaking Catholics often knew martyrdom and persecution. They also knew the disdain that their Anglican betters held for what they considered the less educated, less cultured, backward foreign faith from across the Irish Sea. Newman was indisputably the flower of English culture, so for him to choose the Catholic faith on the sole grounds that it was the true Church founded by Jesus Christ – that was a cultural moment of highest import for the determination of Catholics to take their place in the public square. Not for nothing are Catholic chaplaincies – including my own at Queen's University – all over the English-speaking world named after Cardinal Newman.
Coming to celebrate Newman, Benedict put the following question to British society: In the search for truth, do great English cultural figures like Newman have a place anymore, or is the whole history of English Christianity now to be buried underneath a new, secular, multicultural society? The visit made the question personal, too. Was there any room in Britain today for Benedict himself?
"In Blessed John Henry, that tradition of gentle scholarship, deep human wisdom and profound love for the Lord has borne rich fruit," Benedict said yesterday. Listening to the Holy Father – a gentle scholar of deep human wisdom himself – I wondered if the "rich fruit" of this visit would only be seen long after, even as Newman himself got a rough reception from his own contemporaries in the cultural establishment.
Yet as the visit unfolded it was clear that Benedict had succeeded in getting people to consider the central question he thinks Newman would ask today's Britain: What is the foundation of our common life if not our Christian heritage? And if that is to be cast aside, is there an adequate replacement? "You have really challenged the whole country to sit up and think, and that can only be a good thing," said Prime Minister David Cameron to Benedict at the farewell ceremony last night.
The generous words of the Prime Minister indicated that a visit once thought to be fraught with peril was now successfully concluded. For novices of Benedict's travels, it was a surprise, but what took place here was not unlike Turkey, France, Australia or Spain – the Pope always exceeds the low expectations set for him.
Benedict is the great Catholic thinker of his generation, a writer of limpid style and the simplicity only achieved by those who have reached the far side of scholarly wisdom. Newman was that for the 19th century. That the two would be united yesterday was an occasion when across the decades – as Cardinal Newman's own motto put it – "heart speaks unto heart."
Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Britain makes room for Benedict." National Post, (Canada) September 20, 2010.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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