Pope Benedict XVI: he came, he conquered and he left

Posted on: 20 September 2010 by Gareth Hargreaves

How many of you regarded the State visit of Pope Benedict XVI a non-event? Well I certainly did! Not because I’m anti-Catholic, I’m not anti any faith. I think the reason for my ambivalence was that this Pope hadn’t impressed me as much as Pope John Paul II had.

Remember John Paul? Gentle eyes and a big smile. Down on his knees kissing the tarmac when he landed at Gatwick, capturing everyone’s heart in an instant. A great PR man if ever there was one.

This Pope is a different kettle of fish! He’s described as a ‘hardliner’ and a real Catholic traditionalist: no contraception, no gays and no women priests! Add to this the oddly pained expression he has on his face whenever he smiles: it was as though he would really prefer to be somewhere else other than in front of the cameras.

Shortly after he was elected, it emerged that he had been in the Hitler Youth during the war before being detained by the Allies as a POW. This news did nothing to endear him to me.

So here he was landing in Scotland to see the Queen (he had to go there as she was on holiday! So much for the importance of this as a State visit) and drive along Princes Street in the ‘Pope mobile’. Friday he was in London and then Sunday off to Birmingham.

On Saturday morning, I took interest in the news coverage and became engrossed in the pomp of the events and the importance given to the visit. Watching him under the scrutiny of the cameras started to change my perception and feeling towards this man of the cloth. He seemed shy and if anything embarrassed by all the attention: he is after only a man, 83 year-old Joseph Ratzinger.

Over the weekend, we heard the unambiguous apologies for the child sex abuse scandals that have beset the Catholic Church in this country and abroad. To his credit, he made this one of the key messages of his visit and he reiterated his personal sorrow repeatedly.

My views were changing. Well, there's nothing like a repentant bigot, eh! My interest was piqued enough to do some reading on the Pontiff and this helped me to get over my antipathy.

Pope Benedict was 14 years old when he was compelled to join the Hitler Youth. I now have a 14 year-old grandson and he can no more reason Nazi ideology than he can fly. It is horrifying that children were indoctrinated in this way. Having seen the naivety of my own children at that age and again in my similarly callow grandchildren, it makes this period of the Pope's life especially sobering.

By the time the war ended, Ratzinger had deserted his post building tank traps in Hungary and fled West: he was still only 17 years old!

The next 60 years he spent in service of the church becoming a highly respected theologian. Towards the end of this career, he asked three times to retire and three times, he was refused. Now this does not sound like a man driven by ego and ambition. Now he’s stuck with the job until he dies.

By end of the weekend I was feeling slightly elated by the ritualistic series of events and much more amenable to Pope Benedict – not that he cares I’m sure. Will I rush out and convert to Catholicism a la Tony Blair? I don’t think so. Will I be a bit more tolerant than I was at the start of the weekend? Yes! In future, I won’t just take what I read in the media at face value – I’ll check the facts before I cement my opinions.

In all, the visit did a lot for the Catholic Church and more than likely made a lot of us a bit more respectful. I don't believe this visit will resolve our questioning of the Catholic doctrine. However, maybe that is not such a bad thing, it’s so easy to change values but so very much harder to build them back again. Maybe our society needs men like Benedict XVI if only to show us just how far we have changed our values!

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