Into the lions’ den

  • September 8, 2010
Pope and WilliamsPope Benedict XVI will land in Britain on Sept. 16 and when commentators suggest preparations are almost complete what they really mean is the lions are being ushered into the den.

In this case, the lions would be all those individuals, groups, politicians and, of course, the media who are licking their chops at the prospect of getting their claws into Benedict XVI on home soil.

In only the second papal visit to Britain since Henry VIII split with Rome in 1534, and the first since Pope John Paul II drew huge crowds in 1982, Benedict will meet with the Queen, other political and religious dignitaries and be serenaded by Susan Boyle. But the crescendo will be the beatification Mass of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Birmingham on the final morning of the four-day tour.

Newman would be saddened but maybe not surprised by the anti-Catholic storm that has thundered across Britain since Benedict’s papal tour was announced in March. A 19th-century theologian, writer and preacher, Newman was vilified when he spurned the respectable life of an Anglican minister to convert to Catholicism in 1845. As Michael Coren wrote in a recent issue of The Register, Newman made his brave choice at a time in Britain when Catholicism was widely viewed as foreign and even treasonous.

But through his penetrating writing and preaching Newman softened anti-Catholic prejudice, made the faith acceptable and brought many converts into the Church. To a lesser extent, what he accomplished for the Catholic Church in Britain over the course of four decades Benedict will attempt to do over four days.

The degree of anti-Catholic sentiment surrounding Benedict’s tour has been alarming. In the decades following England’s split with Rome, Catholics were routinely persecuted and often executed. They were prohibited from voting or sitting in Parliament until 1829. The 1701 Settlement Act, which bars Catholics from the throne, is still law. But by and large Britain has matured like Canada into a tolerant, multicultural nation and, until recently, Britain’s six-million Catholics had little cause to feel harassed.

The past six months, however, have brought relentless public attacks on the Pope and the Church. Amid some calls to bar the Pope from Britain, the Church has been berated for the sex-abuse scandals and for defending its doctrines on abortion, contraception, homosexuality and the male priesthood. A foreign office bureaucrat was reprimanded over a satirical memo, described as “vile and insulting” by his superior, that suggested a condom be named after the Pope. And more hostility is expected when the Pope lands.

Once again British Catholics must feel as if their Church is under attack. But they can find strength in the example of Cardinal Newman and, come Sept. 16, in the presence of Benedict who, like Daniel, has shown no fear of the lions’ den.

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