While anti-Catholic, secularist and homosexualist activists, with generous help from the media, have spent most of the last year attempting to derail the papal visit, the smart money was always on Benedict XVI taking every fight without breaking a sweat. And when the bell rang, and the eyes of the world were trained on the little island ring, it became clear from the first moment that Benedict’s opponents were hopelessly outclassed.
From the first moments of the trip, while his plane was in the air, it was clear that Benedict knew exactly what he was doing. He pre-empted much of the criticism over Vatican handling of the sex abuse scandals by issuing, again, a strong statement expressing his personal shame and sorrow, but indicated, at the same time, that he was well-prepared and unafraid.
“Benedict Bounce”: warmth and gentleness wins over the media
In the words of the NYT’s Ross Douthat, the pope held Britain spellbound, with the anti-papal rallies and demonstrations as nothing more than “a sideshow to the visit,” with a brief assassination plot scare to show the British “what real religious extremism looks like.” Journalists tweeting from the plane on the way back to Rome on Sunday evening reported that there was an “air of celebration among the papal entourage.” They said, “This time they won with the Pope.”
After months of hearing the increasingly shrill attacks (as one journalist put it, the devil himself could hardly have had worse press), the British people were ready to hear the other side. Before the visit was even over, Keith O’Brien, the cardinal archbishop of Edinburgh, had already spoken of the “Benedict bounce,” in which the very harshness of the attacks contributed to the turn-around in public opinion in the pope’s favour.
But it was Benedict’s personal warmth, gentleness, and the sheer rationality and sense of his message, that hit the cynical British media and political establishment right between the eyes. All the talk in Rome today is of how well the BBC handled the commentary, with positive guests and few fumbles, even on fairly obscure Catholic terminology.
And Britain’s tabloid press, not usually known for backing the side of the angels, are left in awe. The News of the World, England’s largest circulation Sunday paper, and one that often acts as a bellwether for genuine public opinion, ran the headline, “Bene’s from heaven” with the subhead, “People’s Pope leaves Britain with a smile on its face.”
Benedict delivers “knock-out”
At a conference in Rome this evening, barrister and president of Britain’s Catholic Union, Jamie Bogle, told me, “The secular atheist liberals and their friends in the media are going to take a long time to get over this visit. Because they thought they were on a winner. They thought they were going to, if not arrest the pope, at least seriously embarrass him.
“And this little guy in white just flattened them. His gentle, calm, soft-spoken approach just won everybody over. And the demonstrations faded away.”
Bogle warned not to give too much credence to media claims of 20,000 at the anti-papal rally, the organisers’ main event in London on Saturday. The unofficial police count, he said, was no more than 2,000, and organized protests were cancelled during the pope’s time in Scotland due to lack of interest, “while hundreds of thousands lined the route to wave to the pope. There were people chasing him down the streets to keep up. It was a knock-out.”
“I don’t know how he does it,” a smiling Bogle said, “but there’s something about that guy. It’s plainly sanctity.”
And now that Benedict is home, even the hostile media are having difficulty trying to pursue their campaign because “they’ve discovered that the vast majority of people don’t hate the pope, actually, they quite like him. And some of them really love him. Because he’s a lovable guy, and it’s very hard to hate somebody’s lovable grandfather.”
“It was really quite astonishing to see the change that took place,” in the media coverage. “They may be up to it again in the future, but I have to say, I think he just knocked them sideways.”
And how did the British people, millions of whom followed the papal events on the BBC’s live feed on the internet and on television, react to the pope? “They listened,” said Fr. Hugh Allan, the superior of a community of priests, called Norbertine canons, in Chelmsford, Essex, who attended some of the events.
“They really wanted to hear him, and that is going to make the difference. I’ve heard it from so many people.”
On the phone today, Fr. Allan confirmed that the anti-pope crowd have badly lost the argument, and the sympathy of the British public with their months of shrill, fever-pitch attacks. The British people, he said, wanted to hear what the pope had to say.
“One of the most beautiful things has been to see an eighty-three year old man completely taking the wind out of the sails of the Peter Tatchells and the rest of the crowd,” Fr. Allan said.
The pope’s addresses, delivered barely above a whisper, made his detractors look “ridiculous, like children throwing their toys out of the pram because they couldn’t have their own way.” And today the pope’s opponents are left with little to say. “They’re nonplussed and confused” Fr. Allan said, “astonished.” “They didn’t expect people to respond as they have done.”
“They don’t understand why the British people listened to him. Why they wanted to see him. Everything the pope said is outside their mindset.”
The pope’s messages, that Christianity has a foundational place in the building of a just society, one that cannot be suppressed without destroying the foundations of freedom, were delivered fearlessly but gently, in a tone that one had to strain to hear and with an accent one had to concentrate to understand.
“He was just stating the truth,” Fr. Allan said. “It’s really swept people off their feet.”
The part that was perhaps most surprising, to those who don’t know Benedict, was the spirituality. Here was not just another politician in a cassock. This was a religious leader, interested in the hearts and souls of his listeners. And the greatest moment was the silence in the park. At least 150,000 were at the Mall on Saturday evening, lining the pope’s route leading up to Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park, in many cases only to have the briefest glimpse. Well over the officially ticketed numbers of 80,000 were in the park for the evening service of Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
While Dr. Richard Dawkins and the Independent’s Johann Hari harangued the pope, calling him an enabler of pedophilia and demanding that the police go over and arrest him, the people in Hyde Park, most of whom had waited all day, knelt and prayed in “absolute silence.”
I was watching on two live internet feeds simultaneously, one from the BBC with commentary and the other from the UK bishops’ website without and as the ornate monstrance was placed on the altar, and for that brief time, even the BBC chatterers fell silent.
A member of Fr. Allan’s community was at the park and said that almost no one was on their feet. He called it “astonishing” that nearly 100,000 people knelt and prayed. “The response, the silence… To go from ecstatic cheers one moment, welcoming the pope, to profound silence the next, it was really remarkable.”
Benedict has ended the argument.
If nothing else comes of this visit, one service Pope Benedict did this weekend in Britain was to answer the anti-religious accusations. For years, the secularist hard core have held the floor without challenge. The bishops have made polite noises, in the tradition of English Catholic recusants keeping their head down after centuries of persecution, leaving the Evangelicals to do the heavy lifting in the rational defense of public Christianity.
In interview after interview the British bishops have equivocated, circumlocuted and generally sidled away from giving straightforward Christian answers, backed up by the immemorial teaching of the Church, the witness of the great minds of Christendom. This weekend, Pope Benedict put an end to it.
Even though we had already called it, the completeness of Benedict’s triumph in Britain was astonishing to watch. The spell lasted up to the last possible moment, with Prime Minister David Cameron and a large government and ecclesiastical entourage assembled at Birmingham airport to see Benedict off. Among the last shots from the BBC’s live broadcast was of the group of dignitaries and bishops waving to the departing plane, as if seeing off an old friend.