Some mixed messages as plucky pontiff bids to take on all comers

HE came, he toured, he failed to conquer.

But for an 83-year-old prone to afternoon naps Pope Benedict — the plucky pontiff — has certainly shown himself determined to take on all comers.

After denouncing atheism and secularism in Scotland — with a drive-by swipe at sex, booze and money for good measure — Benedict headed south to London to launch fresh attacks on science and celebrity.

He told 4,000 school children in Twickenham to turn away from dreams of shallow stardom and instead aspire to become “the saints of the 21st Century”.

But considering it was only hours since he’d been hanging out with boil-in-the-bag instant celeb Susan Boyle, the mixed messages may have been a tad confusing for the youngsters.

Formats like “Heaven’s Got Talent” or “Search For A Martyr” just don’t have that zippy interactive ring to them — and they appeared to bomb in London as heavily as the Pontiff’s pitch for the “No Sex Factor” had done in Glasgow the day before.

Britain is probably the most secular country the Pope will ever visit, in Christian terms it is now an almost post-religious society.

Catholicism has recently overtaken Anglicanism as the faith with the highest number of weekly church goers, but at some 862,000 mass attendees out of a population of 62m, it reflects the collapse in the social relevance of the Church of England rather than a major turning towards Rome.

And now Canterbury and the Vatican are engaged in a battle royal — or rather, a battle divine — for the dwindling band of believers that remain in this increasingly godless state.

Stalin may have mockingly asked: “How many divisions does the Pope have?” but head of the Anglican Church Dr Rowan Williams is all too keenly aware of the number of tanks the pontiff has recently parked on his lawn.

The Pope kept the Archbishop of Canterbury waiting nearly 30 minutes for their meeting, but then as Rome has been arrogantly waiting for the Anglican Church to confess the error of its ways and return to the True Faith for more than 500 years, the Vatican probably wasn’t too bothered about the lapse in manners.

The two men — or “men in dresses” as none other than self-proclaimed Catholic priest Sinead O’Connor branded them as she appeared across the BBC’s wall-to-wall coverage of the event in a mysterious way — prayed together in Westminster Abbey, while the bulk of the crowd outside tried to drown the “Anti-Christ!” chants coming from a small but very noisy band of protesting protestants.

The more mischievous minded among the congregation back inside the Abbey may have been wondering if the Archbishop was praying that the Pope would remember the seventh commandment — Thou Shalt Not Steal — and stop stealing his staff by offering Anglican clergy a fast-track ticket to Rome and out of the Sodom and Gomorra that is liberal Canterbury.

The centrepiece of the day was the pontiff’s delivery of the keynote political text of his tour to an audience of 2,000 of Britain’s most influential figures in Westminster Hall.

The Pope may not have got them all to accept his discourse that the world of reason needs the world of faith if it is to continue, but the pontiff’s presence did lead to the performance of a minor miracle — bitter enemies Tony Blair and Gordon Brown sitting down side by side and pretending to chat away happily to each other after the vicious attacks His Toniness unleashed on the fellow Labourite in his memoir.

Both probably really wanted to remind each other of commandments of their own — Blair’s would be “Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me,” while Brown would insist: “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness.”

Thankfully, Phoney Tony and Broody Brown kept the fake bonhomie up long enough to hear the Pope pay tribute to St Thomas More who was tried in 1535 for refusing to recognise the English monarch as head of the church just yards from where the pontiff was now speaking.

But as Benedict has learned on this tour, Britain has left its religious rigours far behind it and More is now most definitely considered less.


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