The difference a few days can make
What just a few days can do!
As I sat there on Sunday morning in the rain, waiting for Pope Benedict to arrive at Cofton Park just outside of Birmingham, England, for the beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman, I thought “It’s amazing how four days with the Vicar of Christ can change the minds and hearts of a whole nation.”
When I arrived in England last week on the eve of Benedict XVI’s historic trip to Britain, the first “state visit” of a pope of the Catholic Church since the Protestant Reformation, I was struck by the volume of hostile media coverage, both print and electronic, that preceded his arrival. I feared this hatred would manifest itself in ugly street demonstrations by atheists and anti-Catholic groups.
But from the moment Benedict landed in Scotland on Thursday morning when cameras showed the pontiff and the queen chatting amiably in the Palace of Holyroodhouse, to his farewell at Birmingham International Airport on Sunday evening, he captured not only the imagination of the people of the United Kingdom but also the hearts of many of its citizens—fulfilling his theme for this visit, “Heart speaks unto heart,” taken from Cardinal Newman’s own motto when he was elevated to the college of cardinals.
The visit was rich with ironies. Benedict began at Holyrood, which was the home of Mary Queen of Scots, and the place from which she left to be executed for being a Catholic. He gave a powerful speech from Westminster Hall where Saints Thomas More and John Fisher were condemned to death for refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII as head of the Church in England. And he held a vigil on Saturday night in Hyde Park, near Tyburn where hundreds of Catholic martyrs were brutally hanged, drawn and quartered for their faith.
Pope Benedict certainly did not shy away from speaking the truth. But as one British newspaper put it, “What we thought was God’s Rottweiler has turned out to be a gentle German shepherd.” He did not avoid difficult issues such as the clergy abuse scandal and past mistakes by members and leaders of the Church. But he also challenged society with a distinctly countercultural message, questioning the belligerence of “aggressive atheism” and its desire to expunge religion from the public conversation. He even argued forcefully that Christmas be celebrated publicly, which garnered huge headlines in the daily tabloids.
The media predicted that few people would turn up at papal events. But at every venue over the four exhausting days, crowds exceeded all expectations.
The highlight for me, of course, was the beatification of my mentor and spiritual father, Blessed John Henry Newman, whose motto I chose for my own when I became a bishop. Pope Benedict said that Newman is best remembered for his “keen intellect and prolific pen” but he was careful throughout his visit to present Newman as a model for the discourse between faith and reason, the Church and the public square.
When the pope recalled that Newman was a “warm and human” individual, a dedicated parish priest and a true “pastor of souls”, as well as a great thinker and theologian, he might as well have been referring to himself. As one newspaper acknowledged after the visit concluded: “If the state visit has achieved anything, it has been to show a decidedly skeptical public that the parish priest of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics does indeed have a heart. Since the theme that the organizers chose for the trip was Newman’s motto ‘Heart speaks unto heart,’ they must be congratulating themselves on a mission accomplished” (The Daily Telegraph).
Yes indeed: It’s amazing what a few days can do.
Most Rev. James D. Conley is auxiliary bishop of the Denver Archdiocese.
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