At 83, she has seen a great many state occasions in her lifetime
Yesterday I awoke at 3.30am and turned on the World Service. It happened to be the Heart and Soul programme and I heard the voice of the composer, James MacMillan, speaking simply and effectively on the Church’s need for purification in the wake of the child abuse scandals. He was followed by the voice of Clifford Longley informing us that compared to sophisticated Western democracies where “we are used to being told the truth”, the Church, so secretive and hierarchic, comes over badly. Longley spoke vaguely about the possibility of a “Vatican III” in the future, where the bishops might vote in favour of women priests.
Thought for the Day and Archbishop Vincent Nichols: he mentioned the hostile reception given to Blessed Dominic Barberi when he came over from Italy in the 19th century to convert the English. Then came the news of Cardinal Walter Kaspar’s gaffe about Heathrow. Who needs the Duke of Edinburgh when we have people like Cardinal Kasper? Could the cardinal have been thinking of England at the time of Blessed Dominic’s mission, when it might have looked like a Third World country, what with the poverty, illiteracy, child chimney sweeps and non-existent sanitation?
Then, of course, came the moment when the papal plane, with the Union Jack and the papal flag both flying from the cockpit, touched down in Edinburgh. This was the BBC’s moment and it rose to the occasion: a measured and mellifluous commentary, respectful and unhurried. We were told that there is a difference between the “charisma” of Pope John Paul II and the “charm” of Pope Benedict. The latter, walking with his quick, purposeful tread alongside the Duke of Edinburgh, looked calm and happy. The commentary thought they might be talking about the weather. My mother, who was watching with me, gave her opinion that “as the Pope is German and so is Prince Philip, they probably had a friendly chat in their own language.”
Her Majesty struck me as a little serious-looking – but certainly not as glum as she looked when she was forced to sing alongside Cherie and Tony Blair at the “Domefest” to open the millennium. But she is 83 and has conducted with great dignity many state occasions in her lifetime – though this is the first time she has welcomed a pope on a state visit. It is safe to say that she did not produce a rosary or miraculous medal for the Pope to bless – or indeed, that she has a volume of Blessed John Henry Newman for her bedside reading.
Later, there was a shot of Lord Paisley, the Rev Ian Paisley as he used to be known, gripping some railings and looking discomposed in his belligerent Belfast fashion. Someone once told me that the Rev used to refer to the then incumbent of the chair of St Peter as “Old Red Socks.”. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but I wonder what he made of Pope Benedict’s footwear.