BIRMINGHAM – The Vatican declared Pope Benedict XVI’s four-day visit to Britain a “great success” Sunday, saying the pontiff was able to reach out to a nation wary of his message and angry at his church’s sex abuse scandal.
On his final day, Benedict praised British heroics against the Nazis to mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and moved an Englishman a step closer to possible sainthood.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said the important thing wasn’t so much the turnout – crowds were much smaller than when Pope John Paul II visited in 1982 – but that Benedict’s warning about the dangers of an increasingly secularized society had been received “with profound interest” from Britons as a whole.
Indeed, the British media coverage was remarkable in the seriousness with which newspapers and television took Benedict’s message, and TV stations ran virtually all of the pope’s speeches, Masses and other events live.
“Everyone is agreed about the great success, not so much from the point of view of the numbers, but … by the fact that the message of the pope was received with respect and joy by the faithful,” Lombardi told reporters.
Prime Minister David Cameron, in his farewell speech before Benedict’s departure ceremony, said the pope had “challenged the whole country to sit up and think, and that can only be a good thing.”
At the same time, he seemed to take issue with Benedict’s contention that secularization was taking hold more and more in Britain.
“Faith is part of the fabric of our country. It always has been and it always will be,” Cameron said shortly before the pope left on a flight from Birmingham Airport. Benedict arrived back in Rome late Sunday night.
That was certainly evident on Sunday, as Benedict beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman before tens of thousands of faithful who paid 25 pounds ($39) to attend. This trip marked the first time pilgrims had been asked by their church to pay to see the pope.
Newman, a 19th century Anglican convert to Catholicism, was honored at an open-air Mass in Birmingham, the spiritual highlight of Benedict’s trip. The theologian was enormously influential in both churches, and Benedict wants to hold him up as a model for the faithful for having followed his conscience despite great costs.
Still, Benedict opened his homily by marking a very different but no less poignant commemoration for a German pope on British soil: the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, when Nazi German bombers attacked Britain during World War II.