Before the papal visit, in the storm of controversy over arrangements at Cofton, etc., I underlined two simple facts which I thought were in danger of being overshadowed by the pre-visit jitters:
1) the vicar of Christ is coming to Britain
2) we ought to listen to what he has to say
The visit and its aftermath have indeed been fascinating, not only because of what the pope had to say - more of that anon - but also because his reception by the British was not what one might have feared when reading the slavering, angry opinion pieces of Polly Toynbee or Johann Hari. Nor, come to think of it, was that reception marked by the pope's apotheosis into celebrity status, in spite of the tabloid reaction in some quarters. Somehow, all the sterotypes of the pope crumbled in his presence, without at the same time new myths forming about him in the public eye.
Where new myths have arguably begun to form is in attempts to describe what exactly the impact of the visit has been. Talk of the visit as a moment of re-engagement between the Church and society in this country might be spinning things just a little too prematurely. Where, after all, is the evidence for that? I note with some interest that Archbishop Vincent Nichols has spoken only of the spiritual fruits of the visit in his pastoral letter this Sunday. That is all very true. Still, are our ears not still ringing with the words the pope spoke to the bishops before he left for Birmingham International:
As you proclaim the coming of the Kingdom, with its promise of hope for the poor and the needy, the sick and the elderly, the unborn and the neglected, be sure to present in its fulness the life-giving message of the Gospel, including those elements which call into question the widespread assumptions of today’s culture (my emphasis).
It is quite a commission when you think of it. I wonder what our Lords are preparing to do about it.
The addresses and homelies by the pope during his visit number nearly 20,000 words in total, so there should be no shortage of things to ponder in the weeks ahead. Looking at his first address - the one he gave at Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh - I suppose what strikes me now that I read it again is not so much the thumping implication that those who exclude God from the public square are like the Nazis. It is rather the pope's insistence on the 'deep Christian roots that are still present in every layer of British life.'
A certain kind of Englishman (I number myself among them) or English woman is these days so used to lamenting the decline of civilisation, so accustomed to being disappointed by our lack of resistance to the worst cultural innovations of the west, and so numbed by the spin of twenty-first century professional pressure and uncertainty, that he (or she!) no longer notices the depth of these roots. We live in a society which in so many ways is contra naturam. Still, we should take comfort. No matter how hard the loonies try, it is actually quite difficult to reconstruct human nature in some other way; and Catholicism is in a sense so natural. When we find in our current structures those instincts that made Christian civilisation distinct from Roman or Barbarian civilisation - charity, courtesy, forgiveness, fraternity - we are looking at the fruits of the gospel. The soil is poor, but the flora is unmistakable.
Neither is it possible to wipe out history! English separatism from the continent was always an aberration, and the elevation of J. H. Newman to the altars is a stark reminder that it is possible to be perfectly English and perfectly Roman. Newman, More, the line goes ever on and on.
In this historical perspective I think it would be a mistake to underestimate the impact of our reconnecting with the kind of liturgical silences we witnessed in the papal ceremonies. Even Archbishop Nichols was bowled over:
I will never forget the richness of the silence of 80,000 people at prayer before the Blessed Sacrament in Hyde Park. I hope every celebration of Mass contains times of shared silence in which we can draw close to the Lord
This too is a return to the historical roots of Christianity. Watch and pray. Watch and pray. The undoubted dislocation from this source of spirituality in contemporary liturgical practice is part of the tragedy of the reform. Silence was one of the ways our fathers prayed, and it should never have been lost. Never.
But, lo and behold, a modern discovery in Hyde Park: silence facilitates prayer. Are we merely watching men rediscovering the roundness of the wheel after a passing vogue for quadrangality? Even if that is so, let us rejoice!
Of course our futures require more than this reconnection with the political and religious past, whether remote or proximate. But I am wondering whether we take enough comfort in such a reconnection. Behold the roots! It is hard of course in the hubbub of modern life to hear the voices of the past and to feel those presences which bestride our religious history. But, how suggestive of our ressources they really are!. And how important it is that we take after them once more! Historia magister vitae ... aeternae?
I wonder if this is what informed the pope's sermon during the Mass at Cofton Park which seemed to focus almost exclusively on spiritual matters. I was underwhelmed initially by what seemed a rather timid reflection on Newman's spiritual life. But perhaps the papal subtext was simply this: any fool can bang a drum of public controversy (and usual does), but fruitfulness comes first from listening to God, like Newman, More, and all the rest. Behold the roots! The past is ours and the future with it. All we need do is dig:
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: ‘Stetson!
‘You who were with me in the ships at Mylae
‘That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
‘Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
‘O keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
‘Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
If you want another explanation of the rage of the anti-pope protesters, you might find it in their awareness that the root-grubbing German Shepherd should, at all costs, have been kept out of the national flowerbeds.