Just twelve months ago today, the feast of Our Lady of Walsingham, I was at the Cathedral in Liverpol for the visit of the relics of St Therese. Now, five days after the conclusion of Pope Benedict's visit, it seems clear to me that, given the media hostility that preceded both events and their subsequent success there is an important lesson to be learned about the generally "invisible" nature of reality, as far as the news media are concerned.
It is not entirely true to say that we humans see what we expect to see but it is nevertheless largely true.
One of my favourite stories concerns the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Some have speculated that they did not recognise the risen Lord because He was somehow disguised. Others suggest that some miraculous or supernatural event prevented them recognising Him. I have long suspected,however, that what prevented their seeing Him as Himself was their belief that He was dead and that dead men just don't come back. It was only when Jesus had explained the likelihood of His rising- as indicated in the scriptures- to them- and their minds were thus opened- that they saw Him. In other words, it is all about mind set.
Pope Benedict's homily in Westminster Cathedral was rich beyond words- yet commentators seized upon just one part of it, the reference to child abuse., to the exclusion of anything else. They found what they were looking for. It was the subject upon their agenda.
From time to time one comes across Catholics who are critical of the Church or of the Holy Father. After a little inquiry it becomes obvious that, quite unthinkingly, they have swallowed misconceptions current in the media. Sometimes one doesn't have to scratch very deeply to uncover them. References to the Holy Father's "policies" or "opinions" is generally a give away. But it can go deeper. Before the Papal Visit one could easily be forgiven for thinking that Pope Benedict was walking into an overwhelmingly hostile country where even Catholics would prove apathetic if not, even, hostile. Things turned out differently and the images were so clear as to be undeniable.
There are doubtless many features of modern life which contribute to increasing secularism and worse but the values implicit and promoted in the media are, in my view, the chief cause. I hope and pray that by turning out to welcome the Holy Father last weekend we contributed to breaking down the media assumptions that hinder the progress of truth in our countries.
It has been wonderful beyond words. Yet I think I can see something of a parallel in what happened just twelve short months ago. TWELVE months! And yet the last four days have felt like a whole year together in some respects.
In case anyone has forgotten- it is just twelve months since what I see as a kind of remarkable curtain-raiser for Pope Benedict's visit occurred in the events surrounding the visit of the relics of St Therese to our country. The spiteful venom expressed in the media by people with some kind of animus against the Catholic Church was apparent then in the period leading up to the relics' visit. What was it in the reverencing of some "bones of a dead nun" by benighted credulous papists that so disgusted these sophisticated types?
If hateful attacks from outside were one thing, then a view, inside the Church, that the visit would be of interest to very few Catholics in this country, was another. In the event everyone was taken by surprise when thousands turned out at a whole series of venues to venerate the relics. Some of the erstwhile critics, no doubt with a certain sensitivity towards the market out there in the real world, began to subtly moderate their tone.
Fast forward to last week and the stage is set. This time the issue of child abuse by clergy is taken up as a particularly devastating cudgel with which to attack the Church by people whose own record on the subject is curious to say the least. Richard Dawkins, who is on record as having experienced sexual abuse at one of the private schools he attended and considered it little worse than "embarassing", wants to have the Pope arrested. Mr Tatchell, who had earlier advocated "intergenerational sex"as not necessarily a bad thing, is similarly exercised over the papal visit. Radio and Television journalists constantly speak of the proposed visit as "overshadowed" by the "abuse crisis". Within the Church signs look ominous not least because some of the bishops seem to be bent on discouraging people from attending events. We are told that tickets will be rationed and that people will mostly have to follow on television and internet. Health and safety regulations and terrorist/security threats are given as reasons and even for those determined to attend events there are hurdles- from the limited number of tickets available to each parish, to admission being dependent upon using the approved transport. "Pilgrims" were to be bussed in and the charges, for families for instance, could be considerable. In addition it was necessary to register an interest in going and provide payment within a very short time frame. It was beginning to look as if the whole thing was being organised by people who wanted the visit to be a conspicuous flop. Particularly dispiriting was the pessimism of some clergy. "People just won't turn out for Benedict as they did for John Paul" was something I heard one priest say somehow ignorant of the fact that, apart from being asked to contribute to collections and buy approved Papal Visit memorabilia, no one was asked to pay for tickets in 1982. Then too, in 1982, there had a long period of practical preparation in the parishes with sessions devoted to practising the music. That, this time, it might prove a badly attended flop looked real enough, given such less favourable conditions. Thanks be to God: it did not but what actually happened, glorious as it was, is not, in my opinion, easily explained. The events of last September may hold a key.
I found so much that happened during Pope Benedict's visit profoundly and joyfully moving. Many of my own thoughts and feelings of the first three days I found being echoed by others either when we were waiting to get on the bus or chatting in the queue to get through the security check at Cofton Park- from the wondrous beauty of the Mass at Westminster through disgust at the BBC obsessive focus upon the abuse scandal to a shared resolution to be simply there to support the Holy Father in the face of his enemies. There were many "Gosh! I thought that!" moments for me on Sunday- encounters with the surprisingly familiar but the trip to Birmingham began with the realisation that we three were among fellow parishioners only a handful I knew even merely by sight.
Part of this might be explained by the fact that the church where I attend Sunday mass and have been most active is actually a chapel of ease within a parish of fair size and territorially extensive. Our party was culturally diverse including new Polish arrivals and Travelling people in addition to the more traditional mix but we were the only ones from our end of the parish. I had been disappointed when the invitation had been given out that so few at our church had responded. I had been sad too at hearing from my brother in another diocese and how his considerably-sized parish had seen a poor response. I had heard, too, of how there had been no take up of tickets in one very well-heeled parish in the Liverpool diocese. Reflecting upon this I began to wonder if the take up of the £25 tickets was largely in inverse proportion to the wealth of the pilgrims. "Largely", I say, because I myself am not poor- yet. One of the reasons I had been dismayed at news of the charge when proposed was the fear that this would discourage all but the fully motivated with the result that the media would be enabled to continue their "declining church attendance line". I felt that we needed as great a number of bodies present as could possibly be imagined in order to smash that lie. In the event the privilege of being in such company was to be magnified many times over in the field at Cofton Park. (tbc)
...as was quite evident after the long walk from and to the coach park!
It has all been just too wonderful for words. Yes! I was there in Cofton Park - privileged to be a small part of these last four tremendous days. Having been up since 3am, however, all I am saying for the present is: Deo Gratias.
I have spent most of the day in front of the television making use of the BBC News Channel as never before. It has been wonderful seeing the Holy Father so enthusiastically welcomed in London. It has also been fascinating observing the space given to critics. There were real crackpots like Sinead O'Connor live from Dublin and a "Professor" Grayling. Miss O'Connor imagines she is a priest! I think they used to lock up people with delusions like that. According to Wikipedia- I've checked- Mr Grayling actually is an academic. Alas he had little regard for truth as he spouted out a whole ragbag of allegations. My favourite nutter of the day, however, was the fellow from the "Protestant Truth Society". He at least had an honest position as was evident when he was asked if he agreed with the Pope and the Catholic Church on anything and conceded that there was common ground on the doctrine of the (Blessed) Trinity! The other two just poured venom.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of all this was how the visible presence of the Holy Father together with the overwhelming presence of the crowds of Catholics and other well wishers in the television images contradicted the messages- the lying messages- that the news media have been pouring out for so long. So here is the "monster"! So here is a visit overshadowed by the abuse scandal! So here we see a divided and apathetic Church not turning out! I don't think so.
It is often said that people will see what they expect to see or what they want to see. Well, yes. Up to a point. But truth, no less than murder, will out like a stain on a wall that however often it is painted over, survives to reassert itself.
Well, looking forward to another hard day in front of the box- and an early start for Brum the next day- I'd best be off to bed!
I can hardly contain my joy at the wonderful reception the Catholics of Scotland gave the Holy Father today. After the sustained and vicious media campaign against the Church and Pope Benedict of the last few months they did a wonderful job of being there and being joyful. OK so the music, despite the fine things we have heard from James Macmillan, might have left something to be desired but the background against which all this took place makes it all the more wonderful. I hope and pray that we can match their effort.
It is that Christian joy that really annoys the enemies of Christ.
Well. Now it is our turn. Come on England! and Wales!
I want to say a big thank you from the bottom of my heart to the Catholics of Scoland who turned out insuch great numbers on the streets of Edinburgh to welcome the Holy Father to our shores. You have done us all proud. I pray that we can match you when he comes south. After the anxieties and the constant carping in the media it warmed the heart to see so many there for Pope Benedict. Bizarrely, on the One o'clock news a dimwit was suggesting a lower than expected turnout at Bellahouston Park. There are four hours to go! Let's see what happens!
...continue. Although I have yet to find a papal flag, today I got my English flag - also known as St George's Cross. Part of the Holy Father's mission is to remind us of our Christian heritage so the red cross on the white background responds to that. It's origins as England's flag are obscure. Some have suggested that it is the Papal Vexillum carried by William Duke of Normandy when he invaded in 1066. Others claim an association with Richard I and the Third Crusade. In any case it is present in the Wilton Diptych which seems to commemorate Richard II's consecration of his kingdom to Our Lady - as seen above.
If one needed any evidence that the enemies of Christ's Church are the enemies of truth one need surely look no further than the response to Cardinal Kasper's statement about the experience of landing in this country.
On "Midlands Today" this evening the unfortunate victim of an abusing priest was featured requesting an apology from Pope Benedict for the abuse he had suffered. I seemed to remember something and so, later, did a bit of googling. The priest concerned had been imprisoned in 1998 and subsequently laicised by Pope John Paul in 2001 before dying in prison that same year. All this was recorded in a BBC news article from 2004 in which the authorities of the children's home in which the crimes had occurred were recorded as formally apologising to victims, one of whom, using the same pseudonym as was used in this evening's programme, said that the apology (2004) meant "closure" and "the end of it". I rather suspect that the obsessive focus of so much within the media upon the abuse issue may be re-opening wounds for many of these unfortunate souls.
Despite the negativity still floating around in the media this "Pilgrim" (regd Trade Mark 2010) is beginning to get quite excited. My preparations are under way. At the weekend we got some lightweight deckchairs - reduced to only £5 at Black's - and today I acquired a decent rain cape for only £6.99 at Lidl. If I can occasionally sit down, keep dry in the event of rain, and have sufficient water to drink then I think that I should be able to survive the rigours of Cofton Park.
Now a great deal of fuss is being made about the numbers involved and security and health and safety. At least these are the reasons that have been trotted out for the peculiar arrangements with everyone being bussed in and coralled. Driving past The Hawthorns- the West Bromwich Albion football ground- the other day made me wonder how the numbers involved at a big football match would compare. I did a quick check on Wikipedia and learned that the capacity of Albion's ground is 28,000. St Andrews, the Birmingham City stadium holds 30,700, while Villa Park, the home of Aston Villa holds over 42,000.
All of a sudden the projected numbers for the Beatification Mass at Cofton Park begin to look less unusual both in terms of movements of people and of the levels of policing necessary. On a Saturday with all three teams playing at home there is a potential for something like 100,000 souls converging on those grounds in an already busy urban environment. Of course comparisons begin to fail here because Catholics, unlike the gentle passive and docile football fans are well known for their boisterous, aggressive and often violent alcohol-fuelled behaviour. And their rivalries! Police will doubtless be stretched to the limits keeping Legion of Mary supporters well away from the SVP. And if the Charismatic Renewal were to clash with the Tridentinists...need I say more! .Thankfully we will have the West Midlands Police force to sort that lot out! Their extraordinary track record of looking after Catholics - especially Irish ones- is legendary and their enthusiasm for confessions is said to far exceed that of some south coast bishops. Since we now have Extraordinary Ministers of Communion why stop there? Extraordinary Ministers of Confession next? And who better to get it off to a start?
So it is really happening! Today I received my "Pilgrim Pack" for Birmingham. It came in a big white envelope with my name on it! And wasn't I thrilled! I could hardly wait to tear it open but with a massive effort of self discipline I resisted the temptation until I got home. The delayed gratification, I am sorry to have to report, was distinctly underwhelming. Perhaps they had forgotten something in mine? No. The rest of the family found identical contents in their packages when opened. Never mind, I thought, at least I will be able to learn the music of the James Macmillan Mass from the CD. Alas, this was not on the disc. It may be a wonderful disc but somehow it doesn't appeal to me. Can any attentive reader guess why? In fact I may just use it as an alternative penance on Friday so that I can treat myself to a steak.
And as for the "Pilgrim Passport"! It contains such gems as "A pilgrim is a person who undertakes a journey to a sacred place or event as an act of religious devotion." Now what highly paid half-wit thought that someone who had forked out twenty-five quid would need to be so instructed? Indeed one wonders why the term "passport" was chosen since one of the more practical points of information it carries is the fact that it will be necessary for one to bring one's real passport or some other form of identification including a photograph.
And! Wonder of wonders! We even have a card advising us to "Share the joy of your pilgrim journey with others" by text messaging, facebook, twitter etc..
Am I alone in suspecting that this material has been produced by people who believe that we Catholics are really as stupid as the Dawkins's of this world take us for?
BUT, BUT, BUT!
The "Magnificat" booklet of the Papal Visit is absolutely magnificent! Whoever put that together should be knighted, enobled or even beatified!
... and here is the "Notre Dame de la belle verriere" window from Chartres Cathedral as photographed by yours truly shortly after mass on Sunday 15th August 2010 and at the beginning of what was to be a somewhat dramatic family holiday.