Vatican considers pope's British visit a major success


EVEN AS Pope Benedict took a well-earned rest yesterday after the exertion of his four-day visit to Britain, there was no disguising the Holy See’s satisfaction about the trip.

Many observers argued that it had gone much better than might have been anticipated. As one Vatican insider put it:“At first, you were just relieved to see that nothing untoward had happened but then as the visit went on, it became clear that there was reason to be really joyful about how it was unfolding.”

Speaking in Birmingham on Sunday just before the pope returned to Rome, senior papal spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi referred to the “spiritual success” of the pope’s visit: “We’re all convinced that this has been a huge success, not so much from the viewpoint of the numbers which there were, mind you, but from the very real and strong sense that people were listening and that the pope’s message had been received with joy and respect by the faithful . . . This was a marvellous trip during which hundreds of thousands of people saw, heard and met the pope.”

Fr Lombardi argued that, especially in his Westminster Hall speech last Friday, the pope had conveyed a “positive message” about the role of the Catholic Church in the modern world. On top of that, the trip had represented a powerful boost for ecumenism, pointing out that the Westminster Abbey service, presided over by the pope and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, “went to the very heart of the significance of the ecumenical dialogue, namely how (Catholics and Anglicans) can together bear witness to Christ in today’s world”.

Fr Lombardi’s positive words were echoed by a number of experienced Vatican commentators. Sandro Magister, Vatican writer for weekly L’Espresso, was just one of many to comment on the unexpected positive reaction to the trip from the much-feared British media, saying: “I notice that the English media have reacted both with great surprise and very positively. Those same news organisations which for months had prepared for this trip with a whole range of very strong polemics were realistically forced to acknowledge that their predictions had been entirely overturned by that which Benedict was able to do and say during these few days”.

The Rome-based, right-wing daily, Il Tempo, struck a similarly positive note, concluding: “What has made this trip such a palpable success? Above all, because we’re not talking about an ‘idea’, but rather a ‘presence’. The pope is a real presence not a clerical idea of what religion is all about . . . ”

Not everyone, however, was quite so convinced by the trip. In a religious blog on the website of daily Corriere Della Sera, Alessio Altichieri concluded: “The Pope’s visit was only a moderate success because the curiosity and good manners [of the British public] cannot bridge the oceanic divide that separates the traditional Catholic Church (of which Benedict is the living embodiment) from today’s modern, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic world where everything is relative . . . ”