What did you make of the Pope’s visit to the UK last week? I watched with fascination – not so much at what the Pope said and did, but the way people responded to his coming.
In a traditionally English way – or at least traditional for our mass-media – the Pope was being set up for a fall. For a few weeks several themes were pushed hard; the idea that as an increasingly secular society, no one was interested in him, his visit was an expensive irrelevance, the scandal of child abuse carried out by Catholic priests and his alleged lack of response. It sounded as if it was a visit doomed to failure.
Now, I’m clearly not a Catholic. There are areas of faith and practise over which I would obviously disagree with the Pope. I would agree that child abuse needs to be dealt with, as the church we have a responsibility to those in our care, especially the vulnerable – although I suspect that such abuse is maybe not as rife in the church as we’re sometimes led to believe. I also had my concerns about the sheer expense of his visit, especially at a time of economic difficulty.
What struck me, though, was the change in the coverage as the visit progressed. From that initial dismissal, there was a clear dawning realisation that thousands of people were turning out to see him. This was not just at one event either, it was at all of them. I wonder if this caught them by surprise. From criticism, the commentary turned to something much more positive as they tracked the unfolding events.
His message from beginning to end was a challenge to the secularism that he sees as spreading across the UK and Europe as a whole. In that sense there is agreement between his analysis of our society and the media’s. I wonder, however, if what happened on the ground revealed something quite different. There has no doubt been a turning away from traditional forms of organised religion – although interestingly the latest sets of church statistics show an increase of attendance, a pleasant change to the usual story of decline. But what I sense through events like the visit of the Pope is that there is a spirituality in most people that is looking for a way to express itself. This is certainly what I find when talking to local people outside the church. It is very rare that they refuse the offer of prayer, and most sense that there is more to life than the purely material – you see this clearest of course at times of bereavement. Ecclesiastes explains this yearning, ‘He [God] has also set eternity in the hearts of men…’ (Ecclesiastes 3.11)
The challenge for us, is not to be put off by what is proclaimed as the end of faith by the media and commentators, but to seek to find ways to engage with the spirituality of those around us, in ways that they can relate to. Of course this is nothing new, after all, Jesus was a master at this with his parables and symbolic acts. As we plan Alpha, various events over October half term, and look towards Christmas, let’s seize the opportunities that are presented to us to do just that.
Church Newsletter article for Sunday 26th September 2010