No rain on Pope's UK parade


Pope UKAlthough I was present at the big, open-air Mass at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow on Thursday, where the Pope got a rapturous reception from the crowds, it was not until I was watching the TV coverage later that I realised something quite significant about how this visit was going to be received by the rest of the country.

The build-up had not been encouraging. Weeks of negative headlines about the Church, about the disappointing take-up of tickets and the organisation and cost of the visit had started to wear down Catholic enthusiasm.

Just days before the Pope's arrival, Channel 4 chose to devote an hour of screen time to a documentary on Benedict's papacy by gay rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell, entitled, The Trouble with the Pope. The day before he arrived, news bulletins announced that a letter to the Guardian opposing the state visit had been signed by 55 writers, academics, politicians and other prominent public figures.

Many Catholics were bewildered, downhearted and wondered what kind of welcome the Pope could expect.

But there was a clue in the list of signatories to that letter that I failed to spot until I was watching the BBC news report of the Bellahouston Mass, and saw the camera pan across the huge crowd and rest for a few moments on the figure of Alex Salmond, the Scottish First Minister, in the front row, joining in the singing of 'Be thou my vision' with head back, mouth wide open.

Now Salmond is not a Catholic, and by his own admission not a regular churchgoer, but here was a man not only glad to welcome the Pope and associate himself with his visit, but delighting in the honour the Pope was doing Scotland, and clearly enjoying himself, too.

Every Scot I have spoken to since then noticed that same shot, and there has been much comment about the reasons for Salmond's enthusiasm, including the obvious one that he is a shrewd politician who wants to win Catholic votes. But even if this were just a cynical calculation, it would still be telling us something.

If there are more votes in welcoming the Pope than in opposing him — if backing the Pope is a vote-winner — then what does that tell us about what ordinary Scots, or ordinary Brits, think of the Holy Father?

It was then that I checked the list of signatories to the much-vaunted letter to the Guardian. Out of 55 prominent people, I counted nine whom you might call 'politicians'. Eight were members of the House of Lords. The ninth was a retired MP. No one in elected office. Not a single one who was ever going to have to face voters again.

Despite what is often said about politicians being 'out of touch' with ordinary people, the fact is that Britain's MPs have a much better sense of ordinary people's views than most academics, commentators and journalists, because it is part of their job to listen to those views. They get hundreds of letters a week, they run weekly face-to-face 'surgeries' in their constituencies, and they go round the streets knocking on doors at election time — which is at least once a year if you include local and European elections.

And as well as the means, elected politicians also have the motive to know what ordinary people think — they need their votes.

So, if British MPs think that, on balance, dissing the Pope is a vote-loser, they are probably right, and that tells us a great deal about the views of ordinary British people — as opposed to the views of the relatively small band of metropolitan 'opinion-formers' who work in the media, or who write letters to the Guardian.

And that is exactly what the last few days have shown: while most Britons showed no strong feelings about the Pope's visit, of those who did have strong feelings, the vast majority welcomed him with considerable enthusiasm: 125,000 lined the streets of Edinburgh; 70,000 came to the Mass in Glasgow; 80,000 turned out in Hyde Park and another 55,000 braved the drizzle in Birmingham.

These are not massive figures when compared to the crowds John Paul II attracted in 1982, but they look huge next to the 11,000 that the organisers of the most significant protest march claimed to have mustered in London last Saturday under the banner, 'Protest the Pope'. It is not only their grammar they've got wrong, it seems: they have also gravely misjudged the public mood.

Because, while Britain is often described as a 'secular' country, it is by no means an aggressively secular country. Secularism holds that religion's place in public life should not be a specially privileged one. Aggressive secularism tries to drive it out of public life completely.

Ironically, it was precisely these 'more aggressive forms of secularism' that Pope Benedict warned against in the first address of his visit to the Queen and civic leaders at Holyroodhouse, and these same more aggressive forms of secularism that so conspicuously failed, despite months of planning and the help of allies in key positions in the media, to rain on his parade.

Peter ScallyPeter Scally SJ is founder of Eureka Street's sister publication in the UK, Thinking Faith. 

Topic tags: Peter Scally, Pope, UK Visit, guardian, aggressive secularism



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Existing comments

In the end, people will realise that our Pope is one of the greatest people of our times. His humility and kindness will overcome all obstacles. He will be remembered in history, whilst his opponents will be forgotten.

Beat Odermatt | 22 September 2010  

The grace of God shines out in the humility, simplicity, shyness, guilenessness, fortitude and wisdom of Pope Benedict XVI. Long may he reign.

Sylvester | 22 September 2010  

It was a similar experience here in Australia at World Youth Day. There was a lot of media coverage of negative aspects of Catholicism in the lead-up - the protests by gay groups, the issue of an apology to abuse victims (with little mention of the positive contributions of the Church to Australian society) – but the hundreds of thousands at the event itself highlighted the enormous gap between how religion is covered in the media, and how it is viewed by the general public. And it was amazing how the tone of the coverage then changed.

The media thrives on conflict, and so pits the extremes against one another – the ‘aggressive secularists’ vs the ‘Christian fundamentalists’. The reality is that the vast majority of us don't think in those terms – either we are Christians who are happy to live in a secular world, or we are atheists (or agnostics) happy to let religious people go on with their beliefs.

Joseph Vine | 22 September 2010  

I have known Alex Salmond since he was a brilliant student of economics. His enthusiasm for the Pope's visit was not about votes. It was more about his awareness of the good the Church does throughout the world (he is a pasionate and paying supporter of SCIAF, the equivalent of Caritas Australia - I was Executive Director at the time), his knowledge of how religious bigotry (especially towards Catholics) has divided the social fabric of Scotland and, as someone who seeks the restoration of independence for our ancient nation, his awareness that the Holy See restored the Scottish hierarchy in the 19th century against the wishes of the English bishops and how the Scottish Episcopal Conference has ploughed an independent furrow since - noticeable in their opposition to nuclear weapons and their anti-Iraq war stance during the time of Cardinal Winning when Cardinal Hume equivocated. As the Scottish Prime Minister, no wonder he sang with pride in the presence of the Holy Father.

Duncan MacLaren | 22 September 2010  

I am so glad that this UK visit has gone so well. I am just as glad that the Church did not respond to all the nastiness that was displayed agaainst it by being strident in defence...but just took it on the cheek and turned the other. That has impressed people. In addition , it has made religion look like fun!

My English sister, herself a somwewhat secular Anglican phoned my up top saying how `everyone` was enjoying the Pope`s visit so made her feel `good` that something so special and blatantly happy was happening in what is otherwise a rather sad country at the moment.GOOD ON THE OLD BOY, and God bless him!!!.

eugene | 22 September 2010  

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