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Confusion and controversy cause concern
Britons Need Pope Benedict’s Visit

by Joanna Bogle

By the time you read this, arrangements for the pope’s visit to Britain should be in hand, and everything building up to September. But as I write (April), there’s also a very heated campaign against the visit, against the pope, and against the Church.

Reports about the tragic child abuse and scandals involving Catholic clergy are often laced with exaggeration — and innuendo about the fact that the pope is German, linked with stories about sex-abuse in German Catholic schools and parishes.

Britain’s leading atheist campaigner, Christopher Hitchens, writes that the pope’s “whole career has the stench of evil”: in a lengthy rant based on a deliberate misunderstanding of the Church’s rules, structures, and system of operating, he sneers at this “mediocre Bavarian bureaucrat” responsible for a “filthy wave of crime” — and that’s some of the milder language. The internet insures that Hitchens is given the same coverage and status as any other writer. The Catholic blogosphere has proved, alas, inadequate at countering this.

Meanwhile, the anti-Church campaigners are having a field day: the National Secular Society has promised demonstrations against the papal visit, focusing on the costs involved (the Church will pay for much of it, but public funds cover things like police, security, and traffic control).

The homosexual-rights lobbyists are having a grand time: for some while now they have been officially part of the mainstream, and so are now able to denounce Church teachings on sex as being hate-filled, unjust, and wicked. People are frightened to oppose “gay rights” — all local authorities are expected to promote lesbian and homosexual lifestyles, public posters remind people to adopt attitudes that promote support for the homosexual lobby, schools and libraries and health services all push the same line, and all of this is funded by the taxpayers. Any anti-papal initiatives organized by homosexual lobby groups will get wide media coverage.

Atheism is much in vogue at present, with Richard Dawkins’s books and Christopher Hitchens’s talks all regarded as being absolutely at the forefront of fashionable thinking. A much-publicized debate about the Church’s role, held at a central London venue and viewed by millions on the internet, resulted in a massive defeat for the Catholic side.

The Irish scandals have fit comfortably into ancient anti-Catholic prejudices — as well as massively demoralizing Catholics across the British Isles. Pope Benedict’s plans for an Anglican Ordinariate have been savaged as “the pope parking his tanks on the Anglican lawn” — even though in fact it is an excellent plan with massive scope for goodwill and an active way forward to an increasingly fragmented and confused Anglican Communion.

The Catholic bishops of England and Wales have been courageous in pushing for this papal visit and will work hard to make it a success — but they face immense challenges. Attendance at Mass in Britain is not high, many Catholics are confused about their faith, and it is openly stated (in fact, stated again and again to the point of tedium) that many people attend Church only in order to enable their children to attend Catholic schools.

The bishops have been wrong-footed in their attempts to work with the Labour governments of Tony Blair and George Brown; Blair was dedicated in his support for same-same unions and has described how he gave “a little skip of joy” when these became legal. Such “gay weddings” now take place across the country. A raft of Sexual Orientation Regulations makes everyone afraid to challenge any of this or even to criticize it in any way. A Christian registrar who did not wish to perform same-sex ceremonies was sacked.

So how will a visit from the successor of Saint Peter work in all of this? On the face of it, things are all in place — a meeting with the queen at Holyrood Palace in Scotland, a big ceremony to beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman in Birmingham, a speech in Westminster Hall, where Saint Thomas More was tried and where Parliamentarians gather to honor distinguished men and women and to mark great occasions.

Will there be shrieking crowds outside, and a massive financial burden hanging over the Catholic community? Will it all be worth it?

The answer to the last question is: YES. We want Peter’s successor to come here. We desperately need him: we need his message, we need him to lift our spirits, we need his communication of faith, his wise preaching, his common sense, his joy in the Lord. We need to be helped to look upward and outward.

This is a miserable country at the moment. There are steadily rising figures for violent crime, for the break-up of marriages, for youth suicide. Half of all children are born out of wedlock, and this has been the case for some years now. Most of those born to unmarried parents will lose contact with one parent — generally the father — within six or seven years, and then experience two or more step-parent figures before they reach adulthood. The very deleterious effect that this instability and constant stress has on youngsters is incalculable.

There is a lack of — how can one put it — well-being, normality and joy in everyday things, in the Britain of 2010. The biggest health problems are sexually transmitted diseases — a huge and growing problem among teenagers. Academic standards are poor, and employers routinely discuss the need to give crash-courses in simple writing skills to new employees. It was revealed recently that youngsters can qualify for a public exam (to certify educational achievement) by spending two weeks working at McDonald’s (it counts as “discovering work-related skills”, or something).

Yes, we need Benedict XVI. We need some glorious outdoor liturgies that remind people of the presence of God. We need reminders of the wisdom taught in the Scriptures. We need Catholics to come together in large numbers and feel a sense of solidarity and mutual support. We need goodwill across boundaries of Christian denominations — and with other faiths to show shared values. We need our minds and hearts to rise to God, and in order to achieve that, we need something large and dramatic, and a papal visit could provide that.

The Holy Father will meet the Archbishop of Canterbury and other Christian leaders. He will honor John Henry Newman — whose glorious hymns are sung in churches of all denominations, and whose studious and illuminating writing is a joy and has millions along the path of faith and truth. He will bring together people in an atmosphere of goodwill and unity, in a year when the only other major event will be a General Election with its inevitable bickering. There will be an opportunity for some uplifting scenes, for reminders that human beings are about more than sex, soap operas, and shopping.

Back in 1982, opposition to a papal visit came from old-style Protestants, and from people who were concerned that it would all get in the way of a British victory in the Falklands War. It was a different Britain. Today, opponents of the Church are of a far more savage kind, and the nation itself has lost all its self-confidence, its sense of purpose and heritage and values. Benedict’s visit presents more challenges — but its effects may be more powerful, more useful, more long-lasting.

Pope John Paul II lifted Catholic spirits worldwide, and helped us to see that we could respond to God’s special call to us in what seemed to be weird times — he saw off the Cold War and Communism, and took the Church across the threshold of a new millennium. Benedict is more than capable of taking us into the next decade with a sure pace, joyful hope, and a message that the world desperately needs.

Papa Benedict has massive reserves of courage and faith. His strength in the face of challenges is legendary, and is centered on an inner core of a good conscience and a life of prayer. This is a deeply good man — and a man of wisdom, intellect, courtesy, and understanding. If we can hold our nerve, pray hard and work hard, relish the joy of a papal visit, and put our energies into making it a success, there will be great blessings for Britain. We can do it. But pray for us.

Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist, who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith, and appears frequently on radio and television.

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