15th February 2013
Benedict XVI and the UK
The news that Pope Benedict XVI was stepping down led to messages flowing in to Rome from all corners of the world. Amongst the warmest have been many from the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister sent Pope Benedict the best wishes of Her Majesty’s Government. Foreign Office Minister of State Baroness Warsi wrote a moving testimonial in the British media on her personal encounters with the Pope. And the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster were quick to respond to the announcement with their prayers and support.
There is a reason for this. As the Prime Minister noted, the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Holy See has flourished during this Pontificate. Not least, memories remain fresh of Benedict XVI’s extraordinary visit to Britain in September 2010. Arguably, his discourse to the British people in London’s Westminster Hall, from the site of Thomas More’s trial over 450 years ago, was one of the central speeches of his Papacy. In it, he confronted head on the question of the role of faith in the public square, and the essential underpinning to our civilisation of the dialectic between faith and reason. And he spoke of “the many core values that we share”.
It is easy to forget the difficult context of that visit. In particular, the notable hostility of the media right up until the Pope’s arrival in Scotland. That dissipated almost immediately as the crowds came out to welcome Pope Benedict in Edinburgh and Glasgow on St Ninian’s day. Antipathy was replaced by surprise, respect and esteem for a simple, even humble individual, and the message he brought.
The success of the visit was founded on hard work and a growing strengthening of the relationship in the years that preceded it. It has been followed by other significant moments – not least the British Government delegation visit to the Holy See in February 2012. Under the radar, the steady, more prosaic but no less important task of building ties, forging links and achieving results across our respective global networks has been underway.
This will continue under Pope Benedict’s successor. There will be issues on which we shall continue to disagree, as in any healthy and robust dialogue. But it can truly be said that the Holy See-United Kingdom relationship has never been so strong as during Benedict XVI’s pontificate.