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Papa’s rolling tour of the UK…wherever he laid his hat was his home

Submitted by on 02 Dec 2010 – 09:58

By Ann Widdecombe

They called him God’s Rottweiler but when he came he seemed more like God’s Old English Sheepdog and it was that sudden change in perception which turned the first papal visit for twenty eight years from a widely predicted disaster into a resounding success, put Christianity back on the nation’s agenda, rekindled sympathy for Catholicism and captured hearts and minds for a cause which many had proclaimed lost before the visit even started.

Unlike his predecessor, Pope Benedict XV1 had not managed to project his personality much beyond the walls of St. Peter’s. Regarded as a dry, unyielding, traditionalist who, as keeper of the doctrine, had taken a stern line with dissidents, he excited little enthusiasm. Unlike Karol Wojtyla, who arrived with a colourful history of resistance to both the Nazis and then the Communists, who in turn had occupied his country, he was associated not with heroic causes but with ancient documents studied in fusty libraries.

No matter how much of a traditionalist John Paul II was, he was never perceived as anything other than new and exciting, while, even when he was quietly getting rid of Limbo, Benedict XVI was never perceived as anything other than entrenched and intransigent.

There are some leaders whose persona is so different from that expected that the effect is instantly disarming and thus it proved to be with the present Pope. Before he arrived, demonstrations were expected and a general lack of enthusiasm. Then 125,000 people turned out to greet his arrival in Scotland, the old man smiled and read out a gentle, thoughtful speech, the roar of protest was reduced to a whimper and the air was filled with the screeching of media brakes as the press bandwagon swung suddenly urgently into reverse.

It was an exhausting schedule. Among other activities, His Holiness addressed both houses of Parliament, said Mass in Hyde Park, beatified the first man likely to be a saint in England for five hundred years, visited an old folks home, held a joint service with the Archbishop of Canterbury in Westminster Abbey, held a service for young pilgrims, visited a seminary and met leaders of the main political parties. Each day he had a quick siesta at the nuncio’s house at Wimbledon.

One memory stands out vividly. I was covering the joint service in Westminster Abbey for Sky News and in the crowd outside stood a man with a placard which proclaimed “The pope is the anti-Christ” while beside him stood a young woman with one which read “We love you, Papa, more than beans on toast.” Neither showed any animosity towards the other.

The long-term effect of the visit remains to be seen. There was a sudden surge of interest in Christianity and a recognition of its value but such movements have to stand the test of time. The Prime Minister made great play of saying we are a Christian country but not a single law compelling Christians to act against their consciences has been repealed and a Christian printer or hotelier or adoption agency worker may still have to choose between faith and livelihood in the face of unyielding equality laws. Not all the Pope’s strictures have reversed this.

Five bishops have recently announced their departure from the Anglican church to Rome under the new arrangements offered by this Pope and it is unlikely that the visit did not play a big part in those decisions. Further conversions may well follow but, on balance, the papal presence strengthened rather than weakened the Established Church.

Now the Pope has been and gone, the rest is really up to the church in this country. It can be vocal and pro-active or mitres can gradually sink once more beneath parapets. The visit lasted a mere four days, the fallout will prove only as long as the church’s determination.