And, in some ways, Catholics in Britain have already risen to the challenge

On the Mall they were taking down the papal flags this morning. It seems strange that only two days ago the streets were lined with well-wishers, the faithful waving banners, and, yes, protesters. The broadsheets grudgingly changed their tune, the tabloids loved him – the News of the World called him the “People’s Pope”. By the time of his departure yesterday, Pope Benedict had spoken about all the biggies: religious liberty, the place religion can have in society, solidarity with the poor, the dangers of extremism, secularisation, clerical child abuse and Christian unity.

So much for all the official bits – this visit was actually about the role of the Catholic laity, both in Britain and in the world – especially the secularised West.

From his homily in Bellahouston Park to his speech in Hyde Park, Pope Benedict kept returning to the role of lay people. It almost seemed as though the Holy Father, in his elegant way, was calling for an empowered laity.

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This is a far cry from the 1960s radical call for empowered laity where people wrestled for new positions on parish councils and the faithful became ever more clericalised. This was not a call for more lay people to take over the role of the priest during Mass or be more active in the life of their parish, because in many ways, that point was passed long ago. He was instead calling the laity to live their Christian faith, to go beyond mere faith and live the Gospel.

The role of the laity as Benedict envisages it, is to engage with Catholic culture and present it as an alternative to the “dictatorship of relativism”.

He put it most bluntly at Bellahouston when he said: “The evangelisation of culture is all the more important in our times, when a ‘dictatorship of relativism’ threatens to obscure the unchanging truth about man’s nature, his destiny and his ultimate good. There are some who now seek to exclude religious belief from public discourse, to privatise it or even to paint it as a threat to equality and liberty. Yet religion is in fact a guarantee of authentic liberty and respect, leading us to look upon every person as a brother or sister.

“For this reason I appeal in particular to you, the lay faithful, in accordance with your baptismal calling and mission, not only to be examples of faith in public, but also to put the case for the promotion of faith’s wisdom and vision in the public forum. Society today needs clear voices which propose our right to live, not in a jungle of self-destructive and arbitrary freedoms, but in a society which works for the true welfare of its citizens and offers them guidance and protection in the face of their weakness and fragility.

“Do not be afraid to take up this service to your brothers and sisters, and to the future of your beloved nation.

At Westminster Cathedral, as at Bellahouston, he again urged the “lay faithful to take up their baptismal sharing in Christ’s mission”, stressing how much contemporary society needed the witness of lay people.

He said:

“May the profound ideas of this great Englishman [Cardinal John Henry Newman] continue to inspire all Christ’s followers in this land to conform their every thought, word and action to Christ, and to work strenuously to defend those unchanging moral truths which, taken up, illuminated and confirmed by the Gospel, stand at the foundation of a truly humane, just and free society.”

The Pope prayed for Catholics in Britain to “become ever more conscious of their dignity as a priestly people, called to consecrate the world to God through lives of faith and holiness”.

“And may this increase of apostolic zeal be accompanied by an outpouring of prayer for vocations to the ordained priesthood. For the more the lay apostolate grows, the more urgently the need for priests is felt; and the more the laity’s own sense of vocation is deepened, the more what is proper to the priest stands out.”

For a Pope who has been dismissed as too concerned with the clergy – after he made last year the Year for Priests – Benedict is keenly aware of the importance of the lay faithful, those who make up the body of the Church alongside the clergy and religious, living the faith as best they can.

Despite the elation and the cheering during the vigil at Hyde Park, the Holy Father’s speech sounded a sombre note. After Westminster, it was probably his most significant address in England and Wales.

Pope Benedict held Blessed John Henry Newman up as a role model for aspects of modern life, citing his vision for the “prophetic role of the laity”.

“He saw clearly that we do not so much accept the truth in a purely intellectual act as embrace it in a spiritual dynamic that penetrates to the core of our being,” the Holy Father told pilgrims.

“Truth is passed on not merely by formal teaching, important as that is, but also by the witness of lives lived in integrity, fidelity and holiness; those who live in and by the truth instinctively recognise what is false and, precisely as false, inimical to the beauty and goodness which accompany the splendour of truth, veritatis splendor.”

Benedict also stressed what it was the laity needed to do in order to live its baptismal calling better – through education and example – and warned against complacency.

“No one who looks realistically at our world today could think that Christians can afford to go on with business as usual, ignoring the profound crisis of faith which has overtaken our society, or simply trusting that the patrimony of values handed down by the Christian centuries will continue to inspire and shape the future of our society.

“We know that in times of crisis and upheaval God has raised up great saints and prophets for the renewal of the Church and Christian society; we trust in his providence and we pray for his continued guidance. But each of us, in accordance with his or her state of life, is called to work for the advancement of God’s Kingdom by imbuing temporal life with the values of the Gospel.”

During the visit, Benedict XVI was asking the lay faithful to be involved in the life of the Church despite the challenges presented by secularised society. He was asking them to strive not just to be cultural Catholics but also to live the Gospel to the full, not just on Sundays but to make it permeate all aspects of life.

And in some ways, the British laity already has risen to the challenge by coming out to see the Pope in their hundreds of thousands. Over half a million people came out to see the Pope during his trip.

In the weeks up to the visit, the pitch of articles and newscasts was very critical of the Church, the Pope and Catholics in general, and the tone of the protests was shrill and at times frightening. Walking to Hyde Park or standing outside Twickenham to get a glimpse of the Pope often meant running the gauntlet, “being dismissed out of hand, ridiculed or parodied”.

But there are other ways in which the laity has marked this trip. Catholic Voices is an example of a lay initiative which tried to bring the Catholic perspective to the mainstream press. Lay Catholic bloggers like Claz Gomez and Mac McLernon put themselves behind the visit with all their enthusiasm on Twitter and in the blogosphere. And, last but not least, Lord Patten, the Government’s co-ordinator for the visit, who made sure everything went to plan.

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