Pope Benedict XVI's four-day visit to Britain defied doomsayers and the negative publicity that preceded it, bringing out an estimated 500,000 people in Scotland and England as well as countless others who heard his messages in the media and on the Internet.
Both the government and the Vatican were delighted with how well it had gone. The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the papal spokesman, said it had been a “wonderful visit” and, above all, a “spiritual success.”
The crowd numbers were far larger than any protests (200,000 on the streets of London on Saturday, compared with around 5,000 protesters who took part in a march that day), but the Vatican doesn't judge success by numbers.
Lombardi said the Pope felt it was a success because “many, many people listened with profound interest to what he had to say.”
The British press, some of which has been hostile to the visit, gave a virtually unanimous verdict that it could not have gone better for the church.
The Daily Mail described the visit as triumphant, adding that, “by last night, the protesters appeared defeated, with celebrity objectors virtually silent and demonstrations against the visit few and muted.”
Benedict XVI began his trip by telling Queen Elizabeth II of his concerns about “aggressive forms of secularism,” but he ended it on a message of hope: Britons have a deep thirst for the message of Christianity, even if the country has become a highly secularised environment.
He constantly warned of the excesses of secularism and the perils of what he called atheist extremism and reminded the country of its deep Christian roots, from which so much good has been achieved by its people in the course of history.
British Prime Minister David Cameron noted in his farewell address that the messages Benedict had delivered to the country had made it “sit up and think.” He gave strong assurances that faith “has been and always will be” part of the fabric of British society.
An important factor in the visit's success was the chance for British people to see what the Pope was really like as opposed to his media-concocted image. They were won over by his shyness, deep humility, and child-like innocence — as many in the Vatican predicted they would be. But they also were impressed by his courage and his willingness to speak his mind.
“This was a much more successful visit than the Roman Catholic hierarchy could have dared to hope,” wrote commentator Stephen Glover. “The Pope spoke to the soul of our country, affirming the eternal moral verities which our own political and religious leaders normally prefer to avoid. In essence, he has been asking us to examine what kind of country we want this to be.”
Perhaps more than on any other papal visit, he addressed the sexual abuse scandal, first referring to his “shock” and “sadness” on hearing that some priests had abused children, then voicing his deep sorrow over the “unspeakable crime” of pedophilia by clergy, and finally meeting five Britons who had suffered such abuse.
He also called for better safety measures for children in schools and urged the church in Britain, which has handled the scandal well during the past decade, to share its expertise.
Half of all the nation's parliamentarians turned out for the Pope's speech in Westminster Hall, where St. Thomas More, the patron saint of politicians, was tried and condemned in 1535.
With the Church of England, the exchanges were remarkably friendly, even though relations have reached their lowest ebb in recent times.
The Pope also reached out to interreligious leaders and engaged teachers and young people, urging the latter not to follow a celebrity culture but to enter into relationship with God.
The Pope called Cardinal John Henry Newman, the 19th-century theologian the Pope came to England to beatify, a “great son of England,” recalling how he showed his priestly compassion to the poor, sick, and imprisoned.
How much this visit will affect the country in the long term remains the subject of debate. But for the Catholic faithful and for Britons who value the church's teaching and Christian principles, the Pope's visit was relief after years of encroaching secularist intolerance.
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