The last four days have been the most extraordinary days for the Catholic Church in Britain.
The papal visit anticipated with hostile cynicism has captivated Britain and passed into memory as an amazing event not just for the Catholic Church but for people of all faiths.
We watched spellbound as the Holy Father was greeted at Edinburgh Airport, received by the queen and travelled through the streets of Edinburgh and Glasgow to his first Eucharistic celebration. The impossible was happening, the crowds and welcome which according to certain prophets weren’t going to materialise, were present.
One reporter at the papal mass in Glasgow commented that all the Papal Flags were flying in the direction of Benedict xvi, indicating not just the direction of the breeze but the energy of the crowd and perhaps the grace of the Holy Spirit which Benedict drew strength from. The Holy Father; not just the picture postcard Pope but the good shepherd standing before us, a glimpse behind the shy smile of a man filled with love, hope and faith for his God and also an extraordinary compassion for those whom he serves.
It seems hard to find language to articulate just how special the last few days have been. The Holy Father continued his triumphant march making memorable visits to Westminster Cathedral, Hall and Abbey, No 10 Downing St, St Mary’s Strawberry Hill and a nursing home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. Fr George Ranahan S.C.A. represented our province at the Papal meeting with religious superiors on Friday 17thSept and had phoned and told me what a joyous occasion it was, but this foretaste of the “Benedict experience” didn’t prepare me for my own experience at the Hyde Park prayer vigil.
Large crowds gathered and waited patiently for long hours to meet with Pope Benedict, the excitement grew as we watched his approach on the big screens and finally he arrived. What was he like? One word answer: Generous. He gave, he gave us time, affection, his wisdom, credit, and he gave of himself. My own “Benedict Experience” was that he engendered in me a sense of
Firstly, Pride in being a Catholic, in a modern world in which it’s sometimes considered impolite to speak about religion we couldn’t discuss any other topic, the presence of Benedict made it respectable and fashionable to be a believer. We were able to live our faith in terms of its central message of love as opposed to being continually on the defensive.
Secondly, a sense of an encounter with the Godly. We all lived in that moment of Grace, a sense that our favourable time had come. Our Vigil which centred on an act of Eucharistic adoration was a brave decision. Being used to having six or seven people at adoration it was wonderful to celebrate this act of worship with almost 80,000 people kneeling in adoration. Our sense of the sacred; strange that a learned man who has so much to say had his godliness sanctioned by the period of extraordinary silence following his homilies.
And thirdly, a sense of solidarity with those around me. While waiting for the Pope, one of my parishioners asked when I was going to take my special place, he presumed an area was reserved for priests and looked slightly bemused when I told him that my special place was with my parishioners. Benedict xvi a true Father had gathered the catholic family and affirmed our identity as members of that flock.
Pope Benedict has that unique ability to address us as individuals, as a family of believers and as a society in general. He does so in his own inimitable way. He presented himself as a humble man, a scholar and as a missionary. He recognised all that was good in British society, praising Britain for its faith commitment, its martyrs, its commitment to Justice, democracy, education. He apologised for the scandals of the church. He also challenged British society, asking us what kind of society we wanted to be. In this he struck a unique balance, challenging our culture of tolerance and equality, asking where justice and acceptance of Christian principles were to be found while at the same time empathising with all that was good in British culture. The theme for the Papal visit “Heart speaks to Heart” was an appropriate premise for his visit, Benedict related to people on an emotional level. Benedict xvi presented himself as the perfect missionary not presupposing a faith level or offering recriminations over faith’s absence, but gently inviting us to rediscover, renew and strengthen our faith.
Put simply, Ratzinger the Rottweiler came to Britain where everyone discovered he was really Benny the Bunny, a granddad type figure who told the truth, preached a message of love, showed genuine compassion, kissed a few babies and everyone loved him. The Holy Father became Our Holy Father.