Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

Few state visits can have stirred up more advance controversy than Pope Benedict's, though I do recall Private Eye's cover ahead of the visit of the Japanese Emperor in the 1960s: 'Nasty Nip in the air'. There was the child abuse scandal, the juvenile antics of the Foreign Office planners, the stories that the Catholic hierarchy were trying to keep Irish gypsies away, and Cardinal Kasper's late own goal in labelling Britain a third world country on the eve of the visit. At least the Vatican still knows how to arrange a diplomatic illness, which they did to avoid the embarrassment of bringing Cardinal Kasper to London. I suspect he will be playing for the Vatican reserves for some time to come. Two things saved the day for me. First, the elegance, warmth and sincerity of David Cameron's welcome to the Pope: now there is a man who knows how to behave. Second, I bumped into a bunch of expat British Catholics at Rome airport, who were flying to Edinburgh to see His Holiness. I saw such joy and anticipation in their eyes.

Whoever decided that Westminster Hall was the best place for the Pope's main speech was right. The Papacy can trump most institutions when it comes to antiquity, but the thousand years of British history that flow through Westminster Hall were enough to keep the Vatican from being too uppity. The Pontiff is used to highly choreographed occasions but this one must have appealed to his German sense of ordnung. Somehow the Brits managed to strike just the right note: history without the histrionics, magnificence without flummery, dignity without excess. When the state trumpeters of the Household Cavalry sounded off, even the Pope must have wondered whether he had arrived on the other side. His speech matched the setting. He dwelt on how Christianity is entwined with British history, taking a scenic route to circumvent embarrassing incidents such as Henry VIII and the Reformation. Here was a historian and a scholar in his element and speaking from the heart. Vatican watchers will comb the text for coded messages. But sitting in the hall, I found what he had to say straightforward: secularism does not have exclusive rights over public policy; there is a role for God, too. And laws should be based on moral principles, not just short-term political strategy. …

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