Pope Benedict XVI, the head of the Catholic Church and Sovereign of the Vatican City State, made a 4 day State Visit to the predominantly protestant United Kingdom. Months prior to his arrival on September 16, 2010 there were apprehensions about how he would be received by the public of a state which the Pope described as being on the verge of “aggressive forms of secularism”. There also were concerns over growing opposition, from campaigns such as ‘Protest the Pope’, of the Pope’s policies, which are viewed by many as “denying equality and human rights”. These include his opposition to the use of contraceptives to prevent the spread of HIV, his antagonism to the ordination of women and his denial of rights to homosexuals. The vast majority of the public also opposed the UK spending taxpayers’ money to finance half of the ?20 million cost of the State Visit. However, the most pressing subject touching the nerve of the British public was the Pope’s failure to address, adequately, the Catholic Church’s child sex abuse scandals (where over a period of decades Catholic priests mostly in USA and Ireland, abused children which was then covered up by peers and officials).

The pope did offer a public apology, the first of its kind, during a mass at Westminster Cathedral, London, on 18th September for the child abuse scandals. The mass which was attended by thousands of people included some of the victims of the scandal whom the Pope met. He prayed with them and offered reassurances that the Church was doing everything in its power to investigate the allegations and safeguarding the young from such abuses. However, many of the victims felt it was not enough and that his words must be matched with his actions.

On the same day a march was led in London in protest of the Pope’s arrival as he was driven around in his pope-mobile, a Mercedes 4X4 with a glass case at the back. Around 10,000 people took to the streets of London shouting slogans such as “protect the children, not the priests!” and “Humanity not religion”.

On the other hand, tens of thousands more had gathered to pay their respects as the pope-mobile toured the cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, London and Birmingham. The masses were uplifted as they glimpsed sight of him with many describing it as an once-in-a-lifetime experience. Those who met the Pope described him as a wise and humble man while the crowds expressed the warmth and the harmony they felt by being part of the gatherings. Prime Minister David Cameron described Pope’s visit as “moving” stating that he offered a positive message to all, irrespective of their faiths, and had encouraged a common bond which was the heart of the new culture of social responsibility in Great Britain. In his farewell speech, the Pope referred to the British multicultural society as a great opportunity for the enrichment of the entire community and expressed gratitude to meet the representatives of other religions. One of the warmest receptions he received was by Muslims despite the Pope’s anti-Islamic remarks in 2006. The Muslim Council of Britain described the visit as “a brilliant opportunity for two of the biggest religions to come together.”

Though I neither joined the protestors nor the loyal masses, I was touched by the unity and warmth the public felt for each other as they gathered on the streets. It made me reflect further on the conversation I had a few weeks ago with a Church goer who came knocking on my door and gave me a bleak picture of the world with its many wars and the crimes in society. He explained that following God was the road to salvation. I replied that this skewed negative picture of the world was the responsibility of the media which makes money by selling bad news, but in fact the majority of the world was peaceful and that there were millions of people worldwide doing good. It was just that people were not aware of it as good news does not sell. He cleverly, and also correctly, responded by pointing out that in peaceful states people still lived in fear behind locked doors, often even from their neighbours. If the State Visit of the Pope will in some way encourage or revive people’s sense of  unity for them to trust and bond with their neighbours, then I think every penny of my tax contributions to the visit have been well worth the spend. Saying that, does one have to follow God to ‘love thy neighbour’ and create peace in the world? After all don’t the so called war criminals attend churches, mosques, or temples?


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