The hand of friendship

THE POPE IN THE UK

A hand held out “in friendship” to the whole people of the United Kingdom, combined with the memory of the “deep Christian roots that are still present in every layer of British life” and the recognition of the many men and women who have worked “for the good of the kingdom”, placing themselves at the service of man, and striving to promote peace and vanquish tyranny: so began the apostolic journey of Benedict XVI to the United Kingdom. He arrived in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, on the morning of 16 September. And it was there, at Holyroodhouse, official residence of Queen Elizabeth in Scotland, that he gave his first official speech. In contrast to John Paul’s visit in 1982, that of Benedict XVI (until 19 September) is officially billed as a “state visit”, i.e. made at the express invitation of the Queen herself and by the British government. And it was precisely the meeting with Queen Elizabeth, at Edinburgh, that formed the crucial event of the first day.

Arrival and welcome. On his arrival at Edinburgh Airport, the Pope was welcomed by the Prince Consort, Philip of Edinburgh and by a guard of honour formed by soldiers of the Royal Regiment of Scotland. In the drive by popemobile from the airport to Holyroodhouse, the Pope was greeted by thousands of bystanders and well-wishers who lined the route, some of them waving Vatican banners. The British press too welcomed the Pope with warm words: the “Daily Telegraph”, ever close to the Tory Party and the Church of England, dedicated an editorial to the visit, while the Times included a 16 page supplement with a long article by Edward Stourton, comparing Benedict XVI with Cardinal Henry Newman. The “Independent” and the “Guardian”, the other two important dailies in the UK, also devoted coverage to the visit. The Prime Minister David Cameron declared that the day of the Pope’s arrival was “a special day not just for our six million Catholics but for all those who have at heart faith in Great Britain”. For its part the bishops of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales expressed the conviction that the apostolic journey “will be an enormous success. This historic visit marks a further development of the good relations between the United Kingdom and the Holy See”.

The Pope’s first speech. Speaking before Queen Elizabeth, who had, in her welcoming address, praised the role of faith in civil life, affirming that “religious freedom is at the basis of our democratic society” and thanking the Holy See for its commitment to peace, education and the poor, Benedict XVI recalled that it was thanks to Christian monarchs, including “outstanding saints like Edward the Confessor and Margaret of Scotland” that “the Christian message has been an integral part of the language, thought and culture of the peoples of these islands for more than a thousand years. Your forefathers’ respect for truth and justice, for mercy and charity come to you from a faith that remains a mighty force for good in your kingdom, to the great benefit of Christians and non-Christians alike”. Men and women like William Wilberforce and David Livingstone, who dedicated their efforts to stop the international slave trade, Florence Nightingale, “who served the poor and the sick and set new standards in healthcare”, are some “examples of this force for good”, as too was John Henry Newman, “one of many British Christians of his age whose goodness, eloquence and action were a credit to their countrymen and women”. These and many people like them “were inspired by a deep faith born and nurtures in these islands”. The Pope also encouraged the British and Irish governments and the leaders of Northern Ireland “to continue to walk courageously together on the path marked out for them towards a just and lasting peace” in the troubled province. Benedict also recalled how “Britain and her leaders had stood firm against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society”. He then continued: “As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and society, and thus to a reductive vision of the person and his destiny”. The Pontiff ended his address by expressing the hope that the UK, as it “strives to be a modern and multicultural society”, would “always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate. Let it not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms”. “May all Britons continue to live by the values of honesty, respect and fair-mindedness that have won them the esteem and admiration of many”.

(16 September 2010)

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