Benedict XVI in the United Kingdom : The role of Catholics in a secularized society
During his four-day visit to the United Kingdom (September 16-19), the statements made by Benedict XVI dealt more particularly with four topics: 1) the pedophile priest scandal; 2) the role of Catholics in a strongly secularized society—with a reminder about the mission of the bishops; 3) ecumenical dialogue with the Anglicans, and 4) the example given by Cardinal John Henry Newman, whom he was anxious to beatify personally.
2. The role of Catholics in a secularized society
On September 16, in the late afternoon, while celebrating Mass in Bellahouston Park in Glasgow (Scotland) with 70,000 attending, Benedict XVI urged Scottish Catholics to become involved in society and to promote Christian values in the public square. He likewise invited young people to choose Christ over temptations such as drugs, money and pornography.
“The evangelization of culture is all the more important in our times, when a ‘dictatorship of relativism’ threatens to obscure the unchanging truth about man’s nature, his destiny and his ultimate good,” the pope declared during his homily. “There are some who now seek to exclude religious belief from public discourse, to privatize it or even to paint it as a threat to equality and liberty.” Nevertheless, Benedict XVI maintained, “religion is in fact a guarantee of authentic liberty and respect, leading us to look upon every person as a brother or sister.” The pope then wished to “appeal in particular to … the lay faithful”, asking them “to be examples of faith in public [life]”, and also “to put the case for the promotion of faith’s wisdom and vision in the public forum”. He went on to say: “Society today needs clear voices which propose our right to live, not in a jungle of self-destructive and arbitrary freedoms, but in a society which works for the true welfare of its citizens and offers them guidance and protection in the face of their weakness and fragility.”
To the “young Catholics of Scotland” the pope then issued an invitation: “I urge you to lead lives worthy of our Lord (cf. Eph 4:1) and of yourselves. There are many temptations placed before you every day—drugs, money, sex, pornography, alcohol—which the world tells you will bring you happiness. [Y]et these things are destructive and divisive,” he reminded them, adding that “there is only one thing which lasts: the love of Jesus Christ personally for each one of you. Search for him, know him and love him, and he will set you free from slavery to the glittering but superficial existence frequently proposed by today’s society.” This was the challenge that Benedict XVI presented to the very large number of young people present. And he invited them to “put aside what is worthless.”
The Supreme Pontiff also addressed a message to the “Catholic professionals, politicians and teachers” of the Scottish nation, in which he invited them “never to lose sight of their calling to use their talents and experience in the service of the faith, engaging contemporary Scottish culture at every level.” Earlier, in his first official speech on British soil, at the Royal Palace of Holyroodhouse (Scotland), in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II, Benedict XVI had asked that the United Kingdom “not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms”. “Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society,” the pope noted. “In this challenging enterprise,” he continued, “may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate.” In the pope’s view, the “deep Christian roots” of the United Kingdom “are still present in every layer of British life.”
The United Kingdom has only six million Catholics out of a population of more than 59 million inhabitants, most of them Anglicans, but according to some observers, given the decline in religious practice among Anglicans and the influx of immigrants, the number of practicing Catholics today tends to be higher than the number of Anglicans who attend services.
On Friday morning, September 17, in London, in the district of Twickenham, Benedict XVI challenged British youth in these words: “I hope that among those of you listening to me today there are some of the future saints of the twenty-first century,” and he remarked, “It is not often that a Pope, or indeed anyone else, has the opportunity to speak to the students of all the Catholic schools of England, Wales and Scotland at the same time.” Indeed, this meeting on the campus of St. Mary’s University was broadcast live to many of the 2,800 Catholic schools and universities in the United Kingdom.
“We live in a celebrity culture, and young people are often encouraged to model themselves on figures from the world of sport or entertainment,” the pope noted before asking the young people again to “become saints”. “Having money,” he stated, “makes it possible to be generous and to do good in the world, but on its own, it is not enough to make us happy.” Finally the pope explained that “a good school” should provide “a rounded education for the whole person” and that “a good Catholic school, over and above this, should help all its students to become saints.”
Earlier, in the presence of hundreds of religious priests, brothers and sisters from the world of Catholic education, as well as the British Secretary of Education, Benedict XVI declared that “education is not and must never be considered as purely utilitarian…. The presence of religious in Catholic schools is a powerful reminder of the much-discussed Catholic ethos that needs to inform every aspect of school life.”
While presiding over a prayer vigil in Hyde Park in the heart of London on the evening of September 18, Benedict XVI called on Catholics not to abandon their “task”. He exhorted the 80,000 in attendance not to ignore “the profound crisis of faith which has overtaken our society,” and not take for granted “the patrimony of values handed down by the Christian centuries”.
In front of an imposing podium covered by a cloth canopy which at the back was reminiscent of the décor of Romanesque churches, the pope recalled the tragic fate of the Catholic martyrs tortured in the past in Tyburn, a locality which has since been incorporated into the city of London. He rejoiced that “in our own time, the price to be paid for fidelity to the Gospel is no longer being hanged, drawn and quartered,” although he said that he is aware that this faithfulness to the Gospel “often involves being dismissed out of hand, ridiculed or parodied”. Confronted with this situation, the Supreme Pontiff immediately explained, “the Church cannot withdraw from [her] task of proclaiming Christ and his Gospel as saving truth, the source of our ultimate happiness as individuals and as the foundation of a just and humane society.”
The pope furthermore noted “realistically” that Christians today plainly cannot “afford to go on with business as usual”. In particular, they cannot ignore “the profound crisis of faith which has overtaken our society, or simply [assume] that the patrimony of values handed down by the Christian centuries will continue to inspire and shape the future of our society.” Nevertheless, Benedict XVI emphasized, “each of us, in accordance with his or her state of life, is called to work for the advancement of God’s Kingdom by imbuing temporal life with the values of the Gospel. Each of us has a mission, each of us is called to change the world, to work for a culture of life, a culture forged by love and respect for the dignity of each human person.”
Shortly after pronouncing those words, the pope knelt to adore the Blessed Sacrament. The faithful at the gathering then followed the pope’s example and prayed, kneeling on the grass, with such recollection that the entire park fell silent.
(Sources: Apic/Imedia/VIS/Zenit/Osservatore Romano/Figaro/La Croix – DICI # 222, October 2, 2010)
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