Half my lifetime ago when we learned that Pope John Paul II was going to visit Great Britain I was, initially, not particularly enthusiastic. I couldn't see the point. No previous reigning pontiff had visited these shores and I was not aware of their having been any less a success for all that. Indeed I was quite blase about it. "We don't want a pope to be gallivanting about," I said, "but to guard the deposit of faith and lead the Church on earth." Besides, I had already seen him in the flesh three years earlier when I was in Rome for the first Easter Triduum of his pontificate. In fact I had been pretty close to him as he had blessed the new fire and paschal candle in the narthex of St Peter's basilica. As the visit drew closer, however, my attitude changed- not least because there seemed to be a risk of it not going ahead, thanks to the antics of our insane war-mongering Prime Minister.
Gradually it also dawned upon me that, during the proposed visit, the Church in England and Wales would be on show as never before and that, therefore, one had a duty to "stand up and be counted", as it were. "Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia"! As Catholics we were now free to profess our faith openly in a land where once, for centuries, in fact, the faith had been forced underground. Then, as the visit got under way, I found myself caught up in the excitement and snatching every possible opportunity to see the Pope on the television. Alerted by the news on the Saturday evening that already the roads to Coventry Aiport were busy, our family set off and arrived as the sun was setting. Along with thousands of others we spent the night on the grass in the open and saw a glorious summer dawn before the helicopter bearing the holy father arrived and he celebrated the mass of Pentecost Sunday. Then it was home in time to watch his arrival at Liverpool with the warm welcoming crowds and- not forgetting- the amusing comic sideshow of Rev Ian Paisley and his loopy chums protesting. Happy days!
Since then the world has changed. This country is remarkably different. It was post-Christian in 1982 but didn't know it. It is so today and revels in it. Commenters on a recent survey of social attitudes marvelled at increasingly liberal attitudes towards issues of sexual morality contrasting these with a more "conservative" stance regarding taxation. I think they missed the point "liberal" or "conservative"simply doesn't get it. The attitude is simply "I have a right to anything I want and I dont want to pay for it." In 1982 a Christian might be regarded as a fairly harmless eccentric. Today one is a reproach. It is not, sadly, that one is a better Christian. It is simply that we live in a world more hardened in vice.
Yet it would be a mistake to regard the situation in 1982 through rose tinted spectacles- as somehow ideal. The enthusiasm outside of the Church, particularly in the establishment and media, for Pope John Paul was born largely of a recognition of him as an ally against the Soviet Union. Once the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet empire folded increasing prominence was given to dissidents within the Church. By 1995 it was clear that many of these delightful people wanted him dead. But God is good.
My fear, as Pope Benedict's visit is announced, is that protesters will, this time, form something more than a comic sideshow. I shall pray that I am mistaken in this.
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