Benedict XVI's Visit to Great Britain

Author: Fr Edmund Power, OSB

Benedict XVI's Visit to Great Britain

Fr Edmund Power, OSB*

'Cor ad cor loquitur'

The relationship of Britain with the Papacy goes back a long way. We cannot be sure when Christianity first arrived in remote Britannia but it was certainly during the period of Roman colonization. St Alban is considered our first martyr and his date of death, once set at 304, is now thought to be in fact 209. The protomartyrs of Wales, Julian and Aaron, died in Caerleon in 304. Christianity reached Scotland too in the early centuries of the Christian era.

For England, the missionary energy of Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) was of crucial importance: the first monk to be the Successor of Peter, he sent the monastic mission of Augustine in 597 into a land that had lost its faith with the collapse of the Roman Empire and the heathen invasions. It was Augustine who established the See of Canterbury. In our monastery of St Paul's Outside-the-Walls in Rome, we have a stone plaque dating from the year 604: carved on it is an edict of Gregory, providing the first written reference to a monastic community at St Paul's. When I pass it, I think with gratitude of Gregory and the papal and monastic mission to Britain of more than 1,400 years ago. Augustine and his companions may not have been "Benedictines" in the sense of living exclusively according to the Rule of St Benedict, but Benedictine monasticism soon became intimately associated with the Church in England.

During the 1,000 years between Gregory and the Reformation, Britain produced its only Pope: Nicholas Brakespear, born in Hertfordshire around the year 1100. He tried to enter the nearby Benedictine monastery of St Alban's, but was turned down. Going instead to France, he become a canon regular in Arles, was elected superior and came to the attention of the Roman Curia. Eugenius III made him a Cardinal; he undertook an important mission in Scandinavia, and was elected Pope in 1154, taking the name Adrian IV. His Pontificate included dealings with the Eastern Empire and with Frederick Barbarossa. He died in 1159.

And now, for the second time in history, a reigning Pope is visiting Britain. John Paul II was there in 1982. Nearly 30 years later, in what is in many ways a different world, Benedict XVI makes the same Visit. The Holy Father will travel to Edinburgh, London and Birmingham; he will meet the Queen in Scotland; visit St Mary's College in Twickenham, Lambeth Palace, Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral; on the last day he will beatify Cardinal Newman in Birmingham.

What hopes might we entertain for such a Visit? Clearly, while encouraging men and women of faith in an age that frequently sees faith as marginal, he will not be able, single-handedly, to reverse the tides of secularization. There will be reactions in some quarters to what he is perceived as representing, especially with regard to moral questions. He himself has spoken of the challenges presented by relativism and secularism, particularly in the west today.

The Pope is a wise man and he has a contemplative spirit: certainly, I hope that he may be able to call people back to faith in Jesus Christ. Maybe he should do this not with the shrill voice of the media-evangelist (that has never, in fact, been his voice), but by reminding them of the long, rich tradition of wisdom that manifests itself in the passage of history, seen not as a cold, relentless exemplification of scientific laws, but as a complex saga of love.

The starting point is contemplative rather than inquisitive, or even less, acquisitive. It is an invitation rather than a demand. The spirit is more one of lectio divina than of scientific enquiry, even if one does not exclude the other. Lectio divina is the ancient monastic way of pondering and praying the Scriptures that the Holy Father has recommended on several occasions.

Reflecting on the meaning of life requires a sense of history which is why attempts to deny or neglect the Christian roots of European culture in the interests of ideology cannot have a positive outcome.

The theme of the Visit will be the suggestive phrase that Newman chose as his motto: Cor ad cor loquitur, Heart speaks unto heart. I would like to reflect a little on it. Unusually, it does not come from the Scriptures, nor from the Fathers of the Church, but from the writings of St Francis de Sales (1567-1622). It suggests a reciprocal process of utterance and listening, that operates on a level deeper than that of mere words and ideas. The Holy Father will hear aspirations of people in Britain, and they will hear from him the witness of the Petrine faith.

Evocative, non-scriptural phrases in the Christian tradition often ring scriptural bells in the minds of those who ponder the word of God in the Divine Office and in lectio divina. Newman's motto suggests various "heart" images. Some are admonitory: for example, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it? I the Lord search the mind and try the heart" (Jer 17:9-10). I am always struck by the unexpected force of the intensifier "desperately". But the desperation is "spoken" into hope in the last part of the quotation. The twisting, dead-end paths into which human beings so easily wander need not leave us hopeless: the Lord passes through our inner labyrinth, making straight and purifying.

Other uses of "heart" are full of affectionate pleading: "Our mouth is open to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return... widen your hearts also" (2 Cor 6:11-13). Maybe Paul's words to his Corinthian converts can express something of the Holy Father's hopes as he speaks to his hearers in Britain.

The heart as place of profound communion is expressed in a pair of quotations from the Psalms. The first refers to the heart of God; the second to ours. "The counsel of the Lord stands for ever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations" (Ps 33:11). This text provides the entrance verse for the Mass of the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The second replies: "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight" (Ps 19:14). The Lord voices his inner designs which then resonate in "the meditation of my heart".

The Pope's Patron is St Benedict, the original Patron of Europe. Benedict will celebrate Vespers on Friday 17 September in the royal Abbey of Westminster, a Benedictine monastery for the first six hundred years of its existence. Those familiar with the Rule of St Benedict may remember how the "heart" image straddles the Rule's prologue in which the author lays down the principles of his spiritual teaching. "Listen", he urges, " ... and incline the ear of your heart" (RB, prol. 1). The listening is not a mere activity, but a way of being; the Rule alludes to the wisdom tradition of the Old Testament that recommends a practical attentiveness, enabling a person to grow in common sense, and in the mellowness that is the perfection of natural man. "Ripeness is all", says Edgar in Shakespeare's "King Lear" (V, 2), voicing the noble perseverance and the calm acceptance of the stoic.

St Benedict, however, is not thinking exclusively of human wisdom, even though that quality is important and often transgressed in a frenetic modern world. The heart-listening, an attitude that accompanies the spiritual journey of life, causes a transformation. Benedict repeats the image at the end of the prologue: "As we progress in this way of life and in faith, the heart expands, and we run the way of God's commands with an inexpressible delight of love" (RB, prol 49). Inclining the heart's ear has caused this core-organ of the human person to enlarge. "Widen your hearts!" The expanding heart symbolizes the growth of understanding and of the capacity to love. The concept is far from sentimental: love does not turn on feelings, but on the painful enactment of the will. At its deepest level, love is the active presence of the divine Spirit in the human heart. Its ineffable quality is suggested by Benedict's word "inexpressible".

Cor ad cor loquitur. Maybe St Francis de Sales was half remembering Psalm 41(42): "abyssus abyssum vocat in voce cataractarum tuarum". The Latin Vulgate of St Jerome may be translated, "deep calls unto deep in the voice of your waterfalls". What might this vivid phrase suggest to us? A deep communion in the turbulent experiences of life? The psalm continues, "omnes gurgites tui et fluctus tui super me transierunt", "All your floods and your surges swept over me". In this pair of lines, we note the thrice repeated word "your". Everything is in God's creative and redemptive power, even what threatens to overwhelm and destroy us. May the Holy Father's voice be eloquent with wisdom, and with hope!

*Abbot of St Paul Outside-the-Walls, Rome

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
18/25 August 2010, page 4

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