We have been given another vision of Britain – brighter and more interesting.
It was all joy. There had been such muddles over the complex ticketing arrangements, and such hostility from sections of the mass media, and such horrible things said by campaigners opposed to the Church’s teachings, and such tragedy over the evil actions of priests who had betrayed their calling.
But now, here was Pope Benedict, arriving at Edinburgh airport and standing next to the Queen for the national anthem.
Pope Benedict is small. And quiet. His voice and manner is that of a gentle, kindly professor, with a warm smile and large intelligent eyes. Long years in public view have trained him in the art of maintaining stillness and dignity while speeches are made and greetings are exchanged, but he still doesn’t look quite at home with military bands and official formality; he walked nicely along the guard of honour but was much smaller than all of them. Things got more relaxed when he was sitting chatting with the Queen (she is small, too) and the Duke of Edinburgh, and everything positively erupted into joy when he cheerfully donned a tartan scarf and went out into the city.
He has a rapport with the young – not unexpected in one who spent years teaching them at universities – and a gentle pastoral style with children. People held up babies to be blessed, waved flags and banners of welcome, and called out greetings – and when he celebrated the first Mass of his visit, at Bellahouston Park, before a vast crowd, with everyone roaring out glorious hymns, the style of the visit was established.
Why were we led to believe that this was a nasty, cruel, ranting figure of hate? People who had never met Joseph Ratzinger, who hadn’t read his books, who knew very little about him, repeated one another’s myths and legends – even though the internet makes available masses of material, videos, books, reports, interviews, and more. When he arrived in Britain, the reality became clear: this is a man who long ago placed his entire life at the service of Christ, and has, down all those years, tried faithfully to imitate Him and to live according to His teachings. And it shows.
I was privileged to be invited to Westminster Hall, where, in an extraordinary moment of British history, the Pope was to address Members of Parliament and a great gathering of men and women in public life from across Britain. These walls have echoed to the great events of British history – notably the trial of St Thomas More, who in this place was condemned to death for refusing to follow a king’s rebellion against papal authority, adhering to God and conscience instead. And now, here was a pope arriving – heralded by trumpeters standing in the arches of the great glowing window of stained glass.
The band of the Coldstream Guards played as we waited seated on gilt chairs set in long rows on the ancient stone flags, above us the great hammerbeam roof, and on either side the old grey walls with their Norman arches. A line of former prime ministers awaited his Holiness, along with the Speaker of the House of Commons who would introduce him. He came with the Archbishop of Canterbury from an ecumenical Vespers in Westminster Abbey, another first for a pope.
He arrived looking small and polite, and there were handshakes and pleasantries. And then came his speech. The voice, low and quiet, with its fizzy accent and precise vowels, takes a moment to assimilate: this is no passionate orator. But he had us spellbound. He drew attention to the central issues of our day – the big questions: by what values do we live? How on earth do we decide? Does it matter what is right and wrong? Have we anything by which we can make decisions and judgements? Are we spiritual and cultural orphans, adrift with nothing to guide us?
With clarity, and delicate precision, this priest who represents an authority dating back in an unbroken line across two millennia, spelt out what Western man knows but has forgotten: we cannot live as though religion does not exist, we cannot live without truth. Man has to use his mind, he has to open himself to what is good and true and beautiful. Attempts to marginalise faith – including Christianity – impoverish all and rob human beings of their dignity. Parliamentary democracy – a gift from Britain to the world, and a heritage of which British people should be proud – did not arise in a spiritual vacuum, and will not flourish in one.
I felt as if I had been given my country back again. For too long we have been told that our ancestors, with their assumptions about God and man’s unique destiny, were ignorant and muddled, and that now we must shake off the nonsense passed on to us. Morality as previously known was dangerous; it could now be reinvented by television pundits and if we were smart we would not challenge their views.
Now, sitting in Westminster Hall, I heard all this challenged, and new and much more interesting vistas opened up: of course we must be allowed to think along large lines, to lift our minds to things that are great and noble, to ponder the things of God, and to connect these with our public life, our common life and the search for the common good.
The Pope was not asking for the Church to have a privileged position, not seeking the reinvention of a Church-dominated society; on the contrary, he was inviting us all to a national conversation, a way of living and serving one another in a country where there are people of many faiths and none, and where the place of faith is recognised and enjoyed and honoured for the contribution it can make and the good fruits it brings.
He was applauded all the way down the aisle – where he stopped to view the plaque that commemorates Thomas More – and afterwards the glorious bells of Westminster Abbey pealed out as people milled about in a wonderful traffic-free area, savouring London in a new way.
Whatever you think about the Pope, there has to be an admission that he wasn’t what most people had expected, and his message was timely.
I expect we’ll ignore it. We have become used to dismissing matters of religion (“Oh, it’s all rubbish”; “Causes more trouble than it’s worth” etc) and we find it easier to sludge along with our culture soaked in TV soap operas and rising crime figures and drunken teenagers hanging around bleak shopping centres shouting at one another on Saturday nights. But we would be stupid to do this. We have been given another vision of Britain – brighter, more interesting , and one that we know is realistic, honest, and attractive. It echoes with our common sense and our desire to get along with one another in a workable way and achieve things. It carries resonance from the best of our past and offers a way forward.
Please, don’t let us marginalise faith in God, or ignore what Christianity offers, or sneer at the possibility that men and women can know about the deepest and greatest things. Perhaps it shouldn’t have had to take a Pope to tell us this. But he has done so, and it is a wake-up call. Often, elderly gentle clergy with quiet wisdom do say wise things.
Joanna Bogle writes from London.