THE level of anxiety ahead of the Pope’s visit to Britain meant anything short of a disaster would be seen as something of a success from the Vatican’s point of view.
Which means there must be a heavy sigh of relief hanging over Rome right now because while the pontiff did not perform a miracle, he did manage to deflect at least some of the tide of anger which had threatened to turn his tour of Scotland and England into a wash-out.
The omens were bad from the start when one of his closest aides, Cardinal Kasper, abandoned the four day visit after comparing Britain to a “Third World country”.
And in a classic example of how the Vatican only ever seems to make matters worse for itself, the Pope’s media handlers tried to brush the controversy away by insisting that Kasper was not saying the country was no longer as rich as it once was, just that it was no longer as white as it once was.
Despite the ensuing race furore Kasper refused to apologise for the remark – just as the pontiff has refused to apologise for his own role in the covering-up of clerical child abuse.
Benedict did make his most forthright comments yet on the controversy that has done so much damage to the church by expressing his “deep sorrow for these unspeakable crimes”, but survivors noted it fell short of an apology.
There had been similar use of language on the plane taking him to Scotland, when he answered pre-submitted questions from reporters with a condemnation of church authorities who were too slow in dealing with the abuse crisis – yet did not acknowledge his central role as head of The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the very part of the Vatican responsible for enforcing catholic canonical law across the globe, including on sexual abuse.
Survivors groups insist the Pope was well aware of the scale of the situation and as late as 2001, the then Cardinal Ratzinger wrote to every bishop in the world telling them allegations of abuse must be dealt with in secret.
Critics argue the Pope’s decades as head of the Doctrine of the Faith mean it will be impossible for the Church to fully come to terms with the child abuse crisis while he occupies the throne of St Peter, and his avoidance of accepting any direct blame underscores that.
But Britain has not been as deeply scarred by the horror of child abuse as have Ireland, the US and other countries, and the Pope’s evangelical mission was little short of an attempt to try and re-Christianise what is among the western world’s least religious nations.
And despite ill-judged comments linking modern atheism to the terrors of the Nazi era, his central message deploring the march of secularism – which he claimed now threatened even the celebration of Christmas – drew warm applause from the dominant right wing section of the British press which gave the tour massive attention, as did the blanket, and largely fawning, BBC and Sky News coverage.
While the threatened attempts at a citizen’s arrest of Benedict never materialised, the 10,000 people who rallied in Downing Street to protest the Pope amounted to the biggest demonstration ever in the 17 countries Benedict has already visited.
The crowd was five times larger than organisers expected and the mood of those attacking the church’s attitudes to women, gays and contraception in countries with high HIV rates was summed-up by Comedian Al Murray who said: “The Pope’s opposition to condoms kills people. It is all very well him lecturing us on morals, but he should look at his own organisation’s view.”
The archly conservative Benedict was never going to reach communion with secular Britain, but it is clear his strident views are also out of kilter with even his own flock as an opinion poll during the visit showed seven out of 10 of British Catholics support a women’s right to choose over abortion.
Yet the draw of spirituality – not to mention spectacle – saw initially under-whelming crowds grow steadily as the tour progressed.
His carefully phrased comments on child abuse helped take the sting out of the issue while he was in Britain and Benedict managed to avoid the type of provocative language which saw him cause deep offence to Muslims while visiting Germany in 2006, when he used a quotation in which Islam was condemned as evil and inhumane. There was also no controversy to match the scale of outrage which greeted his remarks on an African tour last year that condoms worsened the spread of HIV/Aids.
Four cities in four days would be a gruelling schedule for anyone and it is no surprise the 83-year-old pontiff looked frail and tired through most of it.
Many thought a hard-line and hard to warm-to Pope like Benedict would not have a prayer of getting his message across in such a secular, almost post-religious society, and though Britain may not really have been listening to what he was saying, it did give him a respectful hearing none the less.
While the tour was in no means a triumph it turned out far better than the Vatican feared.
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