It is always the same. Why were we surprised? I suppose it is a bit like the Olympics cycle, the World Cup cycle and all those other high profile recurring events which travel the world every few years. Prior to it all taking place the predictions are dire. This time it really is going to be a disaster – the stadiums are not ready, the security nightmare will scuttle it, the infrastructure of the chosen country will never cope with the crowds. But as always – well, I can’t remember any predicted disaster which actually materialised – it works out well on the night. If disasters occur – like in Munich in 1972 – they are never predicted.
So what was the dire prediction this time? The Pope’s visit to Britain of course. For months we had been fed stories of impending disasters – poor planning, big security problems which were going to cripple the whole event, embarrassing protests by brigades of the New Atheism movement and the disaffected “faithful”. They were at it up until the very eve of the visit when the words of Cardinal Walter Kasper got lost in translation. He seemingly suggested that to land into Heathrow was to land into a place rendered third world by multiculturalism.
And what actually happened? Did it all go pear-shaped? Emphatically no. It was, in the words of a number of Vatican people, the best trip of the pontificate so far. Certainly, in the shorter term view it could hardly have been better. In the longer term view we can also say, at the very least, it is full of promise. As always with promises – or to be a bit evangelical about it, the sowing of seeds, – time has to pass to see what the effect will be. There is no question but that there was a very widespread sowing going on – tens of millions throughout the Anglophone world are estimated to have watched and heard what the Pope said over those days. And the response was palpably positive for all but the die-hard sceptics.
The Guardian, one of the most hostile organs prior to the visit was reduced to a grudging concession in the wake of the event. “The pontiff’s taking of tea with a Queen whose coronation oaths swore her to defend ‘the Protestant reformed religion established by law’ is quite something. The papal praise poured on Sir Thomas More – the martyr who died defending the pope’s power against the crown – in Westminster Hall would once have been likened to the gunpowder plot. The 5 November celebration is a reminder of the historic reach of anti-Catholicism in popular culture, just as the Act of Settlement is testimony to the sectarian origins of Britain’s high politics. Yet the rapprochement required today is not so much between Protestant and Catholic as between the religious and the rest, and Benedict leaves without denting that divide.” They probably hope so, but one feels that there can be something more than a dent in this if the necessary cultivation and harvesting is attended to. There are already reports of many lapsed Catholics coming to parishes and asking for baptism for their children. There are reports of enquiries from people who want to know more about the faith they saw witnessed to by those few hundred thousand attending events during the visit. Archbishop Vincent Nichols’ reflection on the visit gives some insight into this and what needs to be done now. http://www.thepapalvisit.org.uk/News-and-Media/Latest-News/Papal-Visit-something-beyond-words
The New Atheists of course saw the whole thing as a big opportunity for them to spread their gospel. What happened? Firstly, their fellow-travellers were profoundly embarrassed by their antics and are probably now deserting them in droves. Their so-called rationality revealed itself to be the height of irrationality. Ross Douthat in the New York Times observed that “All in all, the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain over the weekend must have been a disappointment to his legions of detractors. Their bold promises notwithstanding, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens didn’t manage to clap the pope in irons and haul him off to jail. The protests against Benedict’s presence proved a sideshow to the visit, rather than the main event. And the threat (happily empty, it turned out) of an assassination plot provided a reminder of what real religious extremism looks like — as opposed to the gentle scholar, swathed in white, urging secular Britons to look with fresh eyes at their island’s ancient faith.” That image, as a counterfoil to the hate-filled rants which spewed from the motley crews on the protest platforms, spoke volumes to all men of good will.