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The key to the Pope's success in Great Britain

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 21, 2010

Most of the reporters writing about the papal visit are clearly surprised by this outcome, and more than a few are betraying their disappointment. A week ago the same reporters were predicting a debacle, and some of them were relishing that prospect. The Pope would face angry protesters wherever he turned, they said. The crowds would be small and subdued. There would be empty seats at the Pope’s public appearances. The staid, jaded secular world of Great Britain would listen skeptically, perhaps nod and clap politely, and then quickly move on to other things, dismissing the old man from Rome.

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:

I would say that a Church that seeks to be particularly attractive is already on the wrong path, because the Church does not work for her own ends, she does not work to increase numbers and thus power. The Church is at the service of another: she serves, not for herself, not to be a strong body, rather she serves to make the proclamation of Jesus Christ accessible…

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.)

Pope Benedict was gentle but relentless in challenging the basic ideas that sustained that distinctively Protestant imperial era. In his historic address at Westminster Hall—with every living former prime minister in attendance—the Pope suggested that St. Thomas More, who had been condemned to death in that same hall, was a model for Church-state relations. At Lambeth Palace, speaking to Anglican bishops with the Archbishop of Canterbury at his side, he proposed Blessed John Henry Newman as a model for ecumenical affairs. Now obviously if St. Thomas More was right, then King Henry was wrong to have him executed, and to break with the Holy See. If Cardinal Newman was right, then today’s Anglican prelates can make themselves right by entering the Catholic Church. The Pope did not draw out these conclusions, but his implications were inescapable.

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 has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: humblesoldier4christ - Sep. 23, 2010 2:40 PM ET USA

    Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.[Matthew 10:16] I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me [John 10:14]

  • Posted by: impossible - Sep. 22, 2010 7:56 PM ET USA

    People, especially the youn, hunger for undiluted truth and the Pope's excellent talks will bear much fruit in the short term and much more in the long term. How blessed Catholics and the world in general are to have the benefit of this great man of God.

  • Posted by: unum - Sep. 22, 2010 7:49 PM ET USA

    Phil, Thanks for tellin' it like it was. (No one else is.)

  • Posted by: samuel.doucette1787 - Sep. 22, 2010 3:49 PM ET USA

    Now, can he visit France and bring the eldest daughter of the Church back from the brink of secularist irrelevancy?

  • Posted by: - Sep. 21, 2010 10:57 PM ET USA

    The visit was certainly a blessing for the British, and the Pope's persistent invocation of authentic Catholic identity should inspire us all to reaffirm the practice of our faith in our daily lives. The quality and clarity of the Pope's various addresses was extraordinary. Deo Gratias for Pope Benedict XVI.

  • Posted by: Lisa Nicholas, PhD - Sep. 21, 2010 7:27 PM ET USA

    The Holy Father did what he -- and, indeed, any Christian -- should do: he spoke the truth in charity. The amazing thing is that this struck so many people as a refreshing novelty. Let's hope it catches on!

  • Posted by: Lisa Nicholas, PhD - Sep. 21, 2010 6:16 PM ET USA

    The Holy Father knows that the truth has its own beauty -- it does not need a P.R. spin or a flashy ad campaign to make its appeal. Thank God for giving him this wisdom -- I believe it is key to the astonish effect of his visit to the UK.