The pope charms the masses but must show faith in modern values

Despite the threat of protests, the papal visit to Britain has passed peacefully – and more successfully than anticipated

As he prepares for this morning's grand finale mass in Birmingham, Pope Benedict XVI must be quietly satisfied at how his visit has turned out. The anticipated army of protesters has dwindled to a few thousand noisy foot soldiers. Meanwhile, the crowds that turned out to welcome him– tens of thousands for a prayer vigil in London's Hyde Park last night – have generally been larger and more enthusiastic than even the organisers had been predicting.

For all his lack of charisma (the contrast with his predecessor, John Paul II, is often noted), the softly spoken, modest Benedict has charmed many. He has even convinced a few sceptics, with his heartfelt words of sorrow during mass yesterday at Westminster Cathedral, that he sincerely wants to tackle the "unspeakable crimes" of paedophile priests which were covered up for so long by the church.

By his demeanour, warm, open and definitely not the dry academic or "Rottweiler" of stereotype, Benedict has succeeded in putting a human face on what can sometimes seem like an inhuman Catholic list of don'ts: no gays, no female ordination, no condoms, no abortions, no sex before marriage. And that face is not, as has been alleged, that of a crazed homophobe, woman-hater, or scheming bureaucrat, willing to do anything to protect the good name of the church.

Then there was the unmistakable symbolism of the pope embracing the archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace, then the two of them standing side-by-side on the altar of Westminster Abbey, jointly laying to rest the ghosts of the Reformation that has cost so many lives these past 500 years. Yes, profound theological differences remain, but here was a visible sign, as the Queen remarked in her greeting to the pope (quoting his own words), that religion should never be a "vehicle of hatred".

His core message has been about the need to challenge "aggressive forms of secularism" and restore religion's place in national debates. And it appears to have struck a chord way beyond Britain's six million Catholics, beyond even the 72% who described themselves as Christian. So when he spoke at his Glasgow mass of the threat to the young of drugs, alcohol, pornography, money – "which the world tells you will bring you happiness… but which are destructive and divisive", he was voicing the fears of many parents at the value-lite culture their children so often readily embrace in a secular society.

Benedict was less precise, however, particularly in his speech to politicians in Westminster Hall, about quite how he envisaged religion reclaiming its "legitimate role… in the public square". It was not, he said, a question of the church laying down "concrete political solutions". So, thank God, he doesn't want a confessional state.

But if it is dialogue and respect he is demanding (over, for example, faith schools and the public celebration of Christmas), then it cuts both ways. If religion – and the Catholic church – is going to make "a vital contribution to a national conversation", it is going to have to start listening as well as wanting to be heard. In particular, it will have to accept with better grace than hitherto that in a democracy other opinions will sometimes prevail, and that those opinions are not necessarily always wrong and/or evil.

And we might ponder too on who the pope and his bishops are speaking for. If they claim to represent the 10% of us who are Catholics, then they should reflect what, in good faith, we believe. The pope, for example, may regard civil partnerships as "the legalisation of evil", but most Catholics do not, and can find no justification for such prejudice in the gospels. The true success of this visit will ultimately be judged not only by greater openness in our society to the voice of religion, but also in Pope Benedict's own willingness to listen and learn.


Peter Stanford

The GuardianTramp

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