Benedict goes on tour while Ratzinger stays at home
A Papal visit of three halves
It seems undeniable that Pope Benedict in person is genuinely a nice man – as nice as a friendly granddad. He is tiny. Unlike his predecessor who was handsome and strong until his last years had charisma to burn, this Pontiff is mild and reticent. You feel he would be just as happy at home with a cup of cocoa and a book of theology. We learned that he offered his resignation from public life ten years ago, five years before his accession to the Papacy. His request was turned down – obviously.
On his tour to England we were happily not distracted by Ratzinger the theologian who can offend almost everyone at will – there is a long list- gays, women, Anglicans, Jews, Moslems and others.
It was a great visit by any measure and a credit to the organisers. It was a joy to see the buzz of young and old, the choristers, the schoolchildren, the babies, the great and the good, the ordinary and the average. The Scots and English gave him a great welcome – as is only right. He represents not only himself but a billion Catholics round the world.
But that welcome comes as no surprise. I have been travelling to the UK for over forty years and over 99% of my experiences have been positive. I have enjoyed the hospitality of the farmers in Cornwall, the city people in London, the Pubs and Clubs of Newcastle, the building sites of Manchester not to mention bad golf played on good golf courses in Scotland and rugby matches in Murrayfield.
On reflection it should not come as a surprise that one of the most accommodating races in the world should extend a hand of warmth and friendship to a Pope of German birth with a Roman postcode.
I felt the historic significance of the rapprochement. England had gone its own way for over five hundred years previously and frankly had not been nice to Catholics for much for the following four centuries. Happily that is now all past and is where all history should be kept, in the history books. My children saw nothing unusual in the Queen of England – the Defender of the faith – greeting the other defender of the faith.
There was genuine warmth in the embrace between the Pope and Archbishop Rowan Williams.
I felt a bit of nostalgia for the Catholic Church I left but still love andfor the visit of his processor John Paul II to Ireland in 1979. In the morning of the Papal Visit I walked to the Phoenix Park with my mother. In the afternoon I visited a home for abused girls in the Magdalene Laundry in Sean Mc Dermott Street where I made a weekly visit. The Street is one of the toughest in one of the toughest areas of Dublin. But on this day it was festooned with white and yellow flags. There was a great and palpable excitement as the Pope's motorcade came down the Street. There was a hope he might stop at the Parish Church and mark one of Ireland's great saints – Laurence O'Toole – who worked with the poorest of the poor in Dublin’s tenements and helped partially overcome the ravages of alcoholism which destroyed so many families.
The Pope’s car slowed down but did not stop. Later that evening we took the midnight train to Galway with the young girls who had found refuge in the Magdalene Laundry. These girls had been abused by their families and had found sanctuary in the Church. The reverse of the modern tale.
We arrived in Galway and walked out to the racetrack (In the West they do it differently). We woke in the early dawn cold and stiff. Fr Michael Cleary, who was a character, in more than one sense, got a sing song going and we soon began to feel better. 31 years on and I can still remember the excitement and fun. I bumped into my sister Margaret purely by chance. She had decided to come last minute with the scouts and we literally stumbled across each other among 100,000 other young people.
We arrived back to Sean McDermott Street later that evening. Normal business was soon resumed. I counted three burnt out cars beside the Church which still bore the bunting of the previous day.
The Church that John Paul II saw 31 years ago is vastly different to the one we now witness, struggling to cope with falling church attendances and the fallout from the sex crisis; I doubt if JP II would recognise the landscape.
One can only hope that the English and Scottish Churches will have a happier post papal experience. I am hopeful it can be. There are signs that the present pope is listening. He is promoting eco Christianity; he is promoting Teilhard de Chardin and JH Newman.
I am ever hopeful that the Church can find a way of coming to terms with gays, women priests, married priests, birth control, and inter faith dialogue. I am on the banks of the river hoping the barque of Peter may set sail in our direction. Stranger things have happened.