The Collective Heart of a Nation Melts

Author: Fr James MacKay

The Collective Heart of a Nation Melts

Fr James MacKay*

British priest comments on media coverage and public response surrounding the Pope's Visit to the UK

It would be untrue to say that the months leading up to the Papal visit were not spiritually difficult. The pressure from the media, the press and notable public figures joined in protest at the visit, which steadily grew from a few voices to a loud crescendo of opinions of the "evils" of the Catholic Church.

This may be a slight overstatement, however it is done with the intent to illustrate the sense of the interior burden felt at this moment, as a Catholic, and in my case, a priest.

Reading back over my homilies in these months, I can now discern the defensive, almost belligerent tone in my writing, as if sensing the enemy all around with paranoia. This atmosphere also began to affect my sense of the country I love, this dowry of Mary called England. Could we really be this Godless? Have we become a heathen nation?

Survey after survey in the newspapers stated that even Catholics were indifferent to the visit of their Holy Father, that streets would be empty as he passed through. Hyde Park and Cofton Park would be bereft of worshippers. We were led to believe that England had forgotten religion, and that the visit of the Holy Father was some kind of intrusion into a blissful secular life.

However, in the few days leading up to the Holy Father's arrival, a buzz began to go around. He was actually coming! Of course this was true, but its imminence made it seem more of a reality. Parishioners and enquirers began to knock on the presbytery door asking if there were any spare tickets. Phone calls from the local and national radio and TV stations began to come in. There was a sense that the visit was becoming a reality for the whole nation.

The aggression of the protest on television and in the newspapers intensified, but so did the response. While on a lower level, there was a notable public response from certain professed atheist-humanist figures who demanded that protesters cease hurling insults, have an open mind and most importantly, show tolerance. This was welcome, and gave the impression that the consumer industry which the media has become was aware that its viewers were wearying of the one-way traffic of criticism and vitriol.

Then he arrived. Portrayed in our news media as the "rottweiler", stifler of progress, oppressor of millions, our Holy Father stepped off the plane, a small figure with hunched shoulders and undimmed eyes. You could feel the collective heart of a nation melt.

Here he was, living and breathing. He was no longer just a suggestively taken photo, or a misquoted figure, but a man of humble aspect and demeanour. Hope rose in my heart as I saw him and thought, "now we shall hear him speak". Contrary to the advertised, the streets were full with the faithful, the unsure, and the curious. Protesters came too, but they seemed oddly muted, as their staged anger was placed in contrast to the joy of thousands of people, of every age and race, male and female, rich and poor. These were images that could not lie, because they could not be contrived. They were live, and unlike so much else surrounding the visit, unplanned. As our Holy Father spoke of the importanceof faith in national dialogue, and its importance in preserving and protecting those virtues and institutions which we hold so dear, the genius of the choice of theme for this visit "Heart speaks unto heart", became crystal clear. Here was a man who appealed to our deepest self, the self which finds its place in the family, which longs for union with the beloved in the lifelong bond of marriage, which instinctively holds out the hand for the poor and weak of society. He rooted it all in our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

The backbone of any remaining resistance was broken on the Saturday morning after the Mass at Westminster Cathedral. Pope Benedict XVI walked out of the main doors of the Cathedral to be greeted by over 2,000 young people gathered in the Piazza. One very special young man, Pascal Uche, from Stratford in East London, of the Diocese of Brentwood, was chosen to greet the Holy Father. His words say it all: "For many of us before today you were a face on the television or a picture in a Church but today we behold you face to face". It sums up the effect of the Holy Father's presence in our country. Christ was being proclaimed personally, in a face to face encounter with the people hungry for his life-giving word. It was now impossible — unless one positively chose to ignore him — not to listen to the words of the Holy Father.

On an ecumenical and interfaith level, it was interesting to note that both sides desired to not consume themselves in the differences that separate them, rather to discuss the "commonalities", as the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it, which united them together. In his welcome address to the Holy Father, the Chief Rabbi made an important point: "The secularization of Europe that began in the seventeenth century did not happen because people lost faith in God. What led to secularization was that people lost faith in the ability of people of faith to live peaceably together".

Now we stood together at an important moment in history, not simply to dialogue over creedal matters, important as they are, but for the very stage on which to conduct that dialogue in peace and fraternity. The stage of faith.

"In the face of a deeply individualistic culture, we offer community. Against consumerism, we talk about things that have value but not a price. Against cynicism we dare to admire and respect. In the face of fragmenting families, we believe in consecrating relationships. We believe in marriage as a commitment, parenthood as a responsibility, and the poetry of everyday life when it is etched, in homes and schools, with the charisma of holiness and grace".

Note the number of times the Chief Rabbi uses the plural "we" to refer to all those of faith. All those who gather around the living and true God tap into the ultimate reality of human existence, a life lived in communion of love.

The reader will notice that I have not once quoted a word from any speech or homily of the Holy Father. This was deliberate. While he spoke eloquently and profoundly each time, it was his presence which allowed the fruitful response of thousands upon thousands of joyful English men and women. The young were encouraged in their faith, proud to call themselves Catholics. Leaders of the many different faiths in our country were emboldened to speak out on the role of faith in society, no longer afraid to confront the predominant view that would relegate religious expression to the private sphere. The curious and agnostics were exposed to the clear presentation of Catholic life and belief. Those aggressive voices who did so much to damage the reputation of our Holy Father were forced to re-appraise their view by a fair-minded nation which had been reminded of its core values. And for myself, the visit has allowed me to walk down the street once more, chest puffed out, and full of evangelical zeal. Thank you Holy Father, and praised be Jesus Christ.

*Associate Pastor at Brentwood Cathedral in England, former student of the Gregorian University and licensed in Canon Law

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
13 October 2010, page 13

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