Shepherd I meets his dwindling flock

IT was a rare display of human connection from a Pontiff so often dismissed as distant and dogmatically out of date.

Benedict XVI’s Popemobile slowed to a standstill, its bullet-proof window was lowered and he leaned forward to kiss the head of a baby offered up to him from the crowd.

It is the closest Benedict has come to exhibiting the public warmth that made his predecessor John Paul II so popular among the faithful – even though JP2 shared the same unyielding, hardline theology.

The speech of thanks Benedict delivered to Queen Elizabeth, at the beginning of the first state visit to Britain by a Pope, showcased the flash-point controversies that have made his five-year papacy so trouble-laden.

Tellingly, there was no acknowledgement of the child abuse scandals, subsequent cover-up of those crimes and protection of the perpetrators, which has ripped so much respect away from the church in recent years.

The Pontiff did address the issue during a 15-minute audience with journalists when he answered pre-submitted questions on his flight to Scotland, but even then when he condemned the failure of the Catholic hierarchy to deal with paedophilia, there was no mention of his own role as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faithful – the man in effective control of the Vatican’s handling of child abusing priests for almost a quarter of a century.

The Pope’s public comments did spark fresh anger from critics, however, by comparing atheism to the tyranny of Nazism and issuing a stern warning against the dangers of secularism. Some Jewish groups reacted with dismay to the Nazi analogy from a Pontiff who has brought a bishop tainted with Holocaust-denial back in from the cold and who seeks the beatification of Pius XII – the Pope who kept so quiet during the terror of that Holocaust.

While the uncompromising stance on “aggressive secularism” delivered by the Pope was taken by the women’s rights and gay equality campaigners who are protesting his visit as proof he does not understand the topography of a rapidly shifting 21st century society.

This papal tour has been bedeviled with difficulty since its inception. The then Prime Minister Gordon Brown hoped it would shore-up the Catholic vote for him in Scotland, but now he has disappeared from view as surely as the broad welcome that greeted JPII on his purely pastoral visit in 1982.

A general public air of indifference hung over proceedings from the beginning. There was no red carpet for the Pope as he disembarked from his Shepherd I jet at Edinburgh Airport – but this was due to high winds not the high diplomatic anxiety caused by his close aide Cardinal Kasper comparing Britain to a Third World country and pulling out of the visit at the last minute.

Sparse crowds greeted the Pope as he made his way through a Scottish capital dappled in beautiful autumnal sunshine to the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh.

On arrival, the two heads of state climbed the ornate palace staircase and after passing Mary Queen of Scots’ private chambers, the pair exchanged gifts in the elegantly imposing morning drawing room.

There was a definite tingle of one- upmanship between the leaders of the two churches – perhaps enhanced by the fact the Pope can barely disguise his disdain for Anglicanism and has even set up a fast-track exit route for those practitioners eager to leave its relatively liberal embrace.

The Pope gained the upper hand in the exchange of gifts as in return for the Queen’s mere facsimile copies of Hans Holbien prints, he gave her a genuine 8th century gospel.

“Oh lovely, thank you very much, it’s lovely,” the Queen trilled, now slightly more relaxed. But was that a touch of apology in her voice when the Queen noted the Pope had arrived at Holyroodhouse in “a very small car”.

“It must have been a tight squeeze,” she added in reference to the rather grand looking Jaguar provided for the Pontiff by her Government – clearly Her Majesty has very expensive tastes.

Servants then brought in a tray of fizzy water and squash, if the Pontiff was disappointed by the plainness of the refreshments he didn’t show it. After all, what else would you expect in the Third World?

After being treated to a lunch of haggis it was no wonder he needed a nap before travelling on to an open air Mass in Glasgow.

“Church Accused Of Lying Over Child Abuse” flashed the giant TV screens conveying the rolling news channels at Edinburgh station as Mass- goers boarded the trains to Glasgow.

Pupils on the train whisking them to Bellahouston Park seemed far more excited that Mikey, the blind contestant from Big Brother 8 was among the passengers than the fact that they were heading to see the Holy Father.

Embarrassingly for the organisers, the papal Mass site was a quarter empty, an expected €30 entrance fee, long waiting times and the general indifference being to blame.

There was, however, genuine excitement and joy from the crowd as the Popemobile snaked its way through them in a figure eight. They had waited many hours for this with only a performance from Susan Boyle to distract them.

Yet the Pope’s homily was greeted with barely 15 seconds applause.

His strong German accent pronounced the Scottish capital as Edin-Burg – it sounded as harsh to those listening as his hardline message does to most of the rest of this country.

While the numbers flocking to the Pope may have been disappointing, the dozens of protestors who joined Rev Ian Paisley’s demonstration against the Pontiff was dismal.

It was as if Britain had looked at them both, collectively shrugged its shoulders and decided they were yesterday’s men fighting yesterday’s battles.


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