The key to the Pope's success in Great BritainPHILIP LAWLER
Most of the reporters writing about the papal visit are clearly surprised by this outcome, and more than a few are betraying their disappointment.
But Pope Benedict didn't follow that script.
In every particular, the predictions were wrong. The crowds were loud and enthusiastic. The protesters were there, but even their friends in the mass media had trouble locating them among the tens of thousands who lined the streets to cheer for the passing papal motorcade, or thronged around Hyde Park to join in an evening prayer vigil. Britain's political and intellectual leaders watched and listened carefully as the Pope spoke, and his words had an obvious impact. Prime Minister David Cameron spoke for an entire nation when, at the conclusion of the papal visit, he told the departing Pontiff that he had made Britain "sit up and think."
Now the analysts who had predicted a disaster – or perhaps, at best, a polite irrelevancy – are struggling to explain how the Pope confounded their expectations. I think I can explain.
When they predicted an unsuccessful papal visit, analysts were basing their judgment on an assumption. They took it for granted that Pope Benedict would respond to the criticism that had dominated the British media during the last few weeks before his arrival. They assumed that the Pope would be worried about the protests and nervous about the likelihood of popular rejection. Clearly he was not.
Speaking with reporters during the flight from Rome, Pope Benedict said that he recognized anti-Catholicism as a force in Britain, but was not disturbed by it. He voiced his confidence that a deeper, stronger, fundamental commitment to the Christian heritage would also come into play. When asked how he would propose to make the Catholic Church more attractive to the people of Great Britain, he gave a surprising answer:
With those words the Holy Father was signaling that he did not intend to fulfill the analysts' expectations. He would not be defending himself when he spoke to British audiences. He would not be worrying about how the public would perceive him. He was traveling to the United Kingdom "at the service of another," to proclaim the truth and spread the Gospel. So his own ego was not engaged; in a sense he did not care what people thought of him. He only cared what people thought of Jesus Christ.
Pope Benedict's personal style is quiet and ingratiating. His evident humility, and the deference with which he treats others, make it impossible for the public to continue thinking of him as the media had portrayed him. The people of Great Britain did not see a stern, rigid ideologue. They saw a mild, self-deprecating man who treated them with respect – and, because he respected them, told them the truth.
As he said several times during his visit, Pope Benedict saw Britain as a society longing for faith, thirsting for the truth. The reaction to his words proves that he was right. He offered his audiences the truths of the Catholic faith – without bombast, without polemics, but also without apology. And the crowds were fascinated.
Great Britain, clearly, is a nation searching for a sense of purpose. Once a great global empire, brimming over with a sense of moral righteousness, today the nation is uncertain about its own identity: uncertain what it means to be a British subject, or what are the fundamental principles on which British culture is founded. In religious affairs especially, the old establishment has broken down. The Church of England has lost its place as the moral authority over the nation. The Anglican communion has disintegrated into a congeries of different groups with different beliefs and different practices, held together only by their desperate determination to ignore those differences.
Human nature abhors a vacuum, and now into this vacuum of moral leadership strode Pope Benedict, proclaiming truths that might not be welcomed by a secularized audience, but must be recognized as consistent and compelling, worthy at least of some consideration – enough to make people "sit up and think."
Writing in (of all places) the Guardian, columnist Andrew Brown took note of this clash between – as the headline of his column put it – "moral absolutes and crumbling empires." The old Protestant ideas that had governed Great Britain for four centuries had run their course and lost their energy; now the Pope proposed a return to principles of thought that were both old and new: both a part of the British tradition from before the Reformation and a break with more recent history. "This was the end of the British Empire," Brown said, speaking of the Pope's address to political leaders in Westminster Hall.
(Whether he was exaggerating the importance of the papal address, time will tell. But in connecting the British Empire with the Protestant experiment, Brown was historically accurate. It was Henry VIII, the founder of the schismatic Church of England, who first defined the British crown as an imperial enterprise.)
Indeed, the impact of Pope Benedict's message to Great Britain was heightened by the things he did not say – because he did not need to say them. In his address to Anglican prelates he did not focus on Anglicanorum Coetibus, with its bold invitation for Anglicans to enter into the Catholic Church. But surely that apostolic constitution was on the minds of the Anglican bishops who were listening as he spoke about the path to Christian unity. At Westminster Hall, when he praised the anti-slavery crusade led by William Wilberforce, he did not mention today's battle to end abortion, but only a very dull politician would fail to notice the parallel. When he mentioned that Westminster Abbey is dedicated to St. Peter, he could rely on those who listened to realize that St. Peter's successor was now in the building. And when he recalled the great heritage of British Christianity dating back to the times of St. Edward the Confessor and the Venerable Bede, it required very little imagination to notice that those happy days were before the split that gave rise to the Church of England.
Throughout the trip, Pope Benedict was quietly, humbly, but persistently staking a claim. He was not coming to Britain as a visitor from outside, hoping to be welcomed by the nation's leaders. He was claiming, as St. Peter's successor, to be the rightful moral leader of this old Christian society. He was inviting Britain to end its 400-year flirtation with Protestantism and reclaim its Catholic heritage. He was promising that a nation founded on the truths of the Catholic faith could be a prosperous, pluralistic, and successful modern society.
The Pope was making an astonishingly bold series of claims, really. He made them with disarming humility, so that his audiences did not take offense. Still the challenges were unmistakable. Now with the Pope back in Rome, a stunned British society has time to digest the papal message, to realize the implications of what he said, to sit up and think.
Phil Lawler. "The key to the Pope's success in Great Britain." Catholic Culture - In Depth Analysis (September 21, 2010).
Reprinted with permission from Phil Lawler and Catholic Culture.org.
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Phil Lawler is Director of the Catholic Culture Project. Born and raised in the Boston area, Phil Lawler attended Harvard College, graduating with honors in Government in 1972. He did graduate work in political philosophy at the University of Chicago before entering a career in journalism. Phil Lawler has been active in politics as well as journalism. He has been Director of Studies for the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think-tank based in Washington), a member of two presidential inaugural committees; and a candidate for the US Senate.
As a journalist, Phil has acted as editor of Crisis magazine. In 1986 he became the first layman to edit The Pilot, the Boston archdiocesan newspaper. From 1993 through 2005, Phil Lawler was the editor of Catholic World Report, an international monthly news magazine. And in 1996, recognizing the power of the internet, he founded Catholic World News: the first online Catholic news service.
Phil Lawler is the author of five books on political and religious topics most recently The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture. His essays, book reviews, and editorial columns have appeared in over 100 newspapers around the United States and abroad, including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe.
Phil lives in central Massachusetts with his wife Leila and their seven children.
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