As Pope Benedict XVI cruised at a snail’s pace through the streets of London on Saturday, spectators waved flags, screamed with joy, cried and occasionally engaged in bouts of spontaneous chanting. “Benedict, Benedict – there’s only one Benedict”, whooped a 2500 strong crowd outside the Westminster Cathedral. “We love the Pope!”
Benedict smiled, raised his arms aloft and thanked the crowd for their rapturous reception. BBC commentators noted that he looked happier and more enthused than he had at any point during the rest of his four-day ‘state visit’, the first of its kind since 1534. The jubilant chanting and cheering outside the Westminster Cathedral, they remarked, was a rare scene of total-approval amidst a papal visit otherwise dogged by discontent.
Indeed, the Pope was rarely greeted with such rapture as he travelled across the UK. Beset by protesters and even an alleged terror plot, the tone of his trip was set almost immediately in Edinburgh, when only a few hours after having arrived on British soil he rolled through the historic Scottish capital in his custom-built, £75,000 Pope-Mobile, only to be welcomed by a concoction of cheers and abuse.
“Bastardo!” a cluster of Spaniards shouted, “Nonsense!” declared the Reverend Ian Paisley, while a bizarre combination of Orange Order members and Pro-Choice demonstrators assembled near the Scottish Parliament buildings to likewise make their presence felt.
But beyond all the fascinating background drama, there was a true substance to the Pope’s visit. For beneath the pomp of the ceremony, the blinding splendour of the grand churches and the traditional regalia, behind the thick bulletproof glass of the Pope-Mobile, there was a man who had clearly come to deliver a serious message – a warning, even.
“We can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many”, Benedict declared to Scottish politicians and religious leaders in Edinburgh. “As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society.”
He was worried, he later told a congregation of Britain’s power elite at a speech in London, that Christianity was being marginalised and suppressed in the public sphere. “I would invite all of you,” he said, “to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life.”
His agenda was crystal clear: the visit was intended to be a political crusade with evangelical overtones. Ultimately though, his message was discredited by the flawed, skewed logic that lay at its core. Atheism was responsible for Nazi tyranny, he said. And “without the life of prayer,” he told a crowd of 80,000 at Hyde Park, we will walk “false paths leading only to heartbreak and illusion.”
Unsurprisingly, Benedict failed to mention the Crusades, or that the architects of the catastrophic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tony Blair and George Bush, were both good praying Christians. "My faith plays a big part in my life”, Bush once said of his famed ‘personal relationship’ with God, “I pray for strength.” And as for the correlation between Nazism and atheism? “Disgraceful”, according to Richard Dawkins.
The Pope also spoke of a “profound and ongoing dialogue” that was needed between “the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief” – though the Catholic Church, under Benedict’s direction, has rigidly refused to acknowledge widespread secular concerns over its damaging position on contraception and homosexuality, which Benedict himself has described as a “moral evil”. Surely he cannot expect religion to gain more influence within secular society, whilst at the same time denying secular society any influence upon religion.
On the final day of his visit, Benedict spoke of “the urgent need to proclaim the Gospel afresh in a highly secularised environment.” He had witnessed, he said, a “deep thirst” for “the Good News of Jesus Christ” while in Britain. And as he boarded his plane back to Vatican City, it became apparent that he was on British shores essentially as a salesman of his faith – a grand proselytiser of sorts.
Like all good salesman, Benedict had made his pitch with conviction about why our lives would be enhanced by what he was selling: without religion we are heartbroken and truncated, he told us. Benedict, however, was guilty of misrepresentation – a case of false advertising – for his depiction of secularism as dry and inhuman was rooted, quite simply, in a bogus and well trampled stereotype.
Yet even despite his attacks on secularism, the protests and the terror threat, the Pope’s historic visit has been heralded widely as a success – with some Catholics optimistically predicting a “Benedict Bounce” in the weeks ahead. Truncated British non-believers need not fear, though. Because if history is anything to go by, it may well be another 500 years until it all happens again.
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