Historic visit ignites 'thirst' for Christian message in UK
Published 20/09/2010 | 05:00
THE British people have a "deep thirst" for the message of Christianity, the Pope said yesterday as he ended his historic state visit.
On his arrival, Pope Benedict XVI said the country's Christian culture was under threat from "aggressive forms of secularism". But before his departure he said he had seen evidence of a continued interest in religion.
He called upon the local Roman Catholic bishops to help the people turn away from the "vain enticements of this world".
The Pope made his comments to Catholic bishops in Birmingham after beatifying the Victorian theologian who converted to Rome, Cardinal John Henry Newman.
Despite controversy over his speeches in some quarters and a well-attended protest rally, the Vatican believes the first papal state visit to Britain has been a "wonderful" success, with an estimated 500,000 attending open-air services or lining the streets to see the Pope over the past four days.
Images of the Pontiff meeting the queen at Holyrood House in Edinburgh, embracing the archbishop of Canterbury at Westminster Abbey and addressing four former prime ministers will go some way to restoring the church's reputation after the scandal over clergy abusing children.
Last night Britain's most senior Catholic, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, spoke of his hope that the four-day trip would lead to a "Benedict bounce".
It is likely that Chris Patten, the Catholic diplomat parachuted in by Prime Minister David Cameron to get a grip on preparations following a series of debacles, will be rewarded for his efforts by being appointed Britain's next ambassador to the Holy See.
Fr Federico Lombardi, the Pope's main spokesman, said: "Hundreds of thousands of people have met the Pope personally in the street and at the major events and also, through television and the internet, many others have seen him and heard what he has to say.
"I think also that the message that he has about the positive contribution of the Catholic Church and of Christian faith to society has been received very well.
"If there are critics and protests, this is normal for us and the Pope and it is a positive sign of freedom of expression in this society."
In his speech yesterday to Catholic bishops at Oscott College, Birmingham, the Pontiff reminded them that earlier in the year they had told him there was an "urgent need" to proclaim the Gospel in the "highly secularised environment" of Britain.
During his opening speech in Edinburgh last Thursday, the Pope said the country faced a "challenging enterprise" in a "modern and multicultural society", and warned that contemporary culture must not "obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms".
The following day he expressed concern, in his key address at Westminster Hall, over the "increasing marginalisation of religion" and of the politically correct ideologies that threaten celebrations of Christmas.
But yesterday he told the bishops that despite this "it has become clear to me how deep a thirst there is among the British people for the good news of Jesus Christ".
At the farewell ceremony at Birmingham Airport last night, the Pope described the Blessed Cardinal Newman, as he is now styled following the first beatification ceremony to take place in England, as a "great son" of the country.
Cardinal Newman was beatified at a ceremony in Cofton Park, Birmingham, before a crowd of about 60,000 people.
They had travelled throughout the night in coaches and spent hours waiting in the cold and rain, having paid £25 (€29) for a "pilgrim pass" ticket.
Earlier in the day, the Pope had marked the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain by paying tribute to the country's "courageous resistance" of the "evil ideology" of Nazism.
Mr Cameron said the Pope had made the country "sit up and think" but insisted that "faith is part of the fabric of our country".
Peter Saunders, the chief executive of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, said the Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales had gone further than others by setting up its safeguarding commission.
But he added: "They still have a pretty appalling record of dealing with live cases and there are still priests who have been convicted who are still listed in Catholic directories, which is a real affront to their victims."