The Papal Visit And The Thing With The Crowds

Lambeth Walk, New Style. Photo: Matthew Lloyd/ Getty Images

This is the last day of the Papal visit; the great day of the Beatification Mass – the main reason for the visit – and of the farewell; obviously, this is also the day for some reflections.

We have, in the last days, seen a lot of people (many more than expected, actually) on the roadside, cheering and waving flags or just showing sympathy for a man of whom they perceive, more or less dimly, the intellectual and spiritual stature. We have listened to people saying what a beautiful experience it was to see the Pope, share this moment & Co.

I wonder, though, how many people have experienced not only an exciting moment, but a change; how many people have thought, during these days, at least once that if the man is spiritual and a good chap and firmly opposed to abortion, perhaps one should need to give some thought as to whether legal abortion is really fine; if the Church is an important spiritual instance operating for the good of men, whether Her opposition to contraception and divorce is really so wrong; if the Church is still the moral guide of our civilisation, if homosexuality is compatible with it.

I wouldn’t expect a radical change, but at least a moment of reflection; a pause in which uncomfortable questions are posed to one’s own internal tribunal; to be hastily cast aside perhaps but – once the seed has been planted – ready to germinate when more opportune times come (which sadly often means: bereavement, disease or some other minor or major life’s earthquake).

Allow me to say that I am not very confident that this, or any other papal visit, will have a lasting effect. The vast majority of the people on the roadside, and watching TV, will deal with the Pope as they deal with any other media entertainment: something used for the excitement or interest of the moment and to be rapidly cast aside to follow the next excitement. Hence the oceanic masses greeting John Paul II whilst the pews kept emptying; hence the vast number of people who have “seen the Pope”, but haven’t accepted one word more of what he says than they already did; hence the usual “but” mentality (as in “I am a Catholic, but…” ) we will so often hear from, I am sorry to say, the vast majority of those on the roadside.

The age of the media induces people to confuse media events with reality; journalists are – interestedly, and for obvious ego reasons – particularly prone to this mistake. The truth is that media don’t change people, Papal visits don’t change people, “historic speeches” don’t change people and all those talk of a visit which would “energise” a community is merely empty talk of cowardly bishops who do not want to do their job.

People change with constant effort, repeated daily; with the good and sincere (and truthful, and uncomfortable) homily delivered every sunday; with the trust slowly building in an institution perceived to fight for what is right instead of pandering to common prejudices and conveniences; with the relentless hammering of the unpopular truths no one wants to hear. People change if there is a serious, daily effort on the ground with our friends, our families, our colleagues whenever possible. Media events come and go and in two months’ time no one will talk of this visit anymore. A good priest, a good friend, a courageous bishop are there all the time.

It would be extremely dangerous, I think, to take refuge in the numbers of people cheering the Pope, or assisting at the Papal Masses, to conclude that Catholicism in England is on the right way; it isn’t. It is plagued by amateur (or cowardly, or outright atheists) Bishops, by feeble priests preaching the Gospel of the Easy Platitudes, by distracted sheep for whom dissent is a way of showing intelligence and a critical mind.

These are real issues, and they will not change with a Papal visit.

Let us, therefore, remember this visit for what it is: the joyous occasion of an important Beatification, with some entertainment thrown in (a bit of Popemobile here; a bit of Susan Boyle there). Bet let us not be under the delusion that this visit will change absolutely anything as long as the work on the ground is – as it certainly is today – so evidently deficient.


Posted on September 19, 2010, in Catholicism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Of course of itself it doesn’t make a lasting change. But, for example, my goddaughter realised she had to convert at a papal Mass in the piazza of St Peter’s, and I’ve already read a comment somewhere saying “I think I’m going to have to seriously think about swimming the Tiber” etc. It prompts many people in different ways. Moreover, it is a chance to be used by us to evangelise others: the conversations that come up, something that is an occasion to bring someone to something Catholic whom one could normally never find a reason to invite (a Proddie friend of mine whom I managed to provide with a plausible reason for chumming me to an ordination is now a nun). I’ve heard from people taking youth groups how a visit to WYD has shifted teenagers’ relationship with Jesus from cultural Catholic practising because there was a youth group that they liked, to a conscious decided personal submission to the faith. It’s cheered me up immensely and inspired me, it’s made an ass of Tatchell and Fry, … all sorts of good stuff!

    • I agree Berenike,
      there will be some cases.

      Still, if these travels were so powerful Popes wouldn’t be doing anything else and conversely, the Pope who has travelled the most is the one under whose reign the pews have emptied the most.

      I think in the end conversion is a decision growing a bit at a time. One bricks goes above another brick and one day one realises that this is what his future is going to be. If it hadn’t been the Papal visit, it woul dhave been the next prompting.

      Just my two cents of course.


  2. Perhaps if the previous pope hadn’t travelled so much the pews would have emptied faster?


    • 😉

      Personally I do not think this. If the message is strong and the shepherds are good, the pews are full. I see it everywhere both in my own personal experience (Brompton Oratory in London) and in the success of conservative Catholics organisations, thriving pretty much everywhere.

      In my eyes, Pope Benedict has a similar thinking. He doesn’t travel nearly as much as his predecessor; when he does, he has somethign historical to do (say: Turkey; beatification of the most important Catholic convert in recent times; USA) but otherwise he stays home and tries to care that the shop is well kept.

      And he doesn’t really mind whether he is popular, which I like a lot.


  3. It has to be said, Mundabor, that I have probably not yet got a dispassionate handle on this, as I was in tears for more or less all of it. It is, I think, not so easy for a Roman such as yourself to understand the overwhelming emotion of the native-born Englishman who happens to be a Catholic and, therefore, of an ancient (and anciently persecuted) community which is somehow usually perceived as “foreign” even though we have always been here and the last drop of foreign blood in my veins dates from 1066, to see the Sovereign Pontiff himself on the soil of my land, welcomed as a sovereign, accorded all honours, and greeted by crowds of hundreds of thousands. I basically cried for four days.

    However, I would make these remarks: firstly, the man is not only the great intellect I already knew he was, but is also a genuinely lovely man, gentle, shy and kindly. I would not be at all surprised if this combination of qualities sees him raised to the altars himself one day, and although I pray, now more fervently than ever, for his great longevity, I shall certainly pray to him once he is taken from us. He is clearly the greatest pope since Pius XII and maybe since Pius X.

    Secondly, the sight of him in this land, and the sheer emotion of these events (I know, I was at Cofton Park) may well inspire the laity to return to the practice of the faith, even in a small way, and more particularly it may have an impact on vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, aka the “Benedict Bounce” which has been mentioned, and it would not surprise me if this turns out to be the case. Let us pray that it may be so, and in the meantime, “Evviva il papa re!”

  4. I wasn’t at the Westminster Cathedral Mass, but it was for me the most beautiful event of the visit, and the Macmillan “Tu es Petrus” composed for the Holy Father’s entry into the Cathedral was spine-chilling.

    If you haven’t seen it, it’s here, with the entry at 24 minutes in.

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