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The ‘People’s Pope’ made one thing clear: he wants an empowered laity

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

By on Monday, 20 September 2010

The Popemobile goes through the crowds at Hyde Park (Photo: PA)

The Popemobile goes through the crowds at Hyde Park (Photo: PA)

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.

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.

  • SPQRatae

    Thank you for highlighting this. And how true! The age of lay individuals thinking 'empowerment' means hectoring the Church to bend to their wishes is, thankfully, drawing to a close.

    The Holy Father has shown that 'empowerment' means we bend ourselves to what Christ teaches through his Church, then take the Good News out into the public space.

  • http://twitter.com/londonistar alison fi

    As what I would describe as a lapsed or relaxed (cultural) catholic I probably have no real right to speak out on this in a profound way but I must admit to becoming highly disllusioned with secular society over recent years and how ugly it is. I was thoroughly inspired by this visit. A visit which I barely knew anything about a few weeks ago, but which has encouraged me to look again at my faith and realign myself with it, or rather, the message in it. It was actually the animosity towards Catholics that shocked me first and confirmed the worst I feared about secular society. In many ways the shrill determination to shut catholics out of society and the often ugly and hyperbolic sentiments expressed drew my attention to what was going on. Ironically, I expect, for secularists and atheists who would prefer we simply ignored faith or attacked it. I paid attention to the visit as a result and then to how the Pope addressed several major issues. I now find myself drawn to the Church in a way I could never have imagined to date. The same applies to my Catholic husband. The most we have ever done is get married in a Catholic church and attend at Christmas. Even though we have difficulty understanding all the demands made upon Catholics by Papal doctrine (and I often challenge these) we now feel a renewed effort is required on our part in many respects towards it and above all the messages you outline in your article. I was deeply proud of the way Catholics ran that gauntlet of hatred and contempt over the weekend and quite horrified by a secular society that spends weeks on end using its full ability to shut out christianity entirely via the media and won’t tolerate any dissent. In a country which usually does religion in small doses I was totally thrown by the atheism and contempt in big doses that we all had to endure in the run up to the visit. But what an outpouring in support of the Pope after all! The Pope was very dignified in sharing his wisdom and the speeches he gave were quietly intellectual and offered rather than insisted upon. He injected an intellectual seriousness into our political debate which has been sorely lacking. The way people politely welcomed and then finally embraced this in huge waves as a result contrasted with the Ugly Trinity of Dawkins Tatchell and Fry barking their anger and contempt and calling on people to …well, just be nasty really. Excellent summary of many of the key points that made their way over even to me during his visit. Thanks for this excellent summary.

  • Pilgrim Claz (Claz Gomez)

    Anna, wonderful article! Thank you for writing it.

    There is just so much going on for Catholics to get involved in! All it takes, is that one small step to finding out what goes on, and making that initial communication. The internet, will these days for most people, be the first area of research for this – but that is just writing on a screen that you wouldn't truly be able to engage with. The best thing to do, is to talk to other active Catholics! We aren't scary people and we don't bite! AND… we're everywhere. Even on Twitter. We're pretty clued up about activities in our local parishes and nationwide, so there are activities and events aplenty for all every seeking soul – all one needs to do is ask an active Catholic :) Of course, being active is sometimes not possible for everyone (like people with young families, the disabled community, the destitute), but Pope Benedict still asks every one of us to live our lives according to the Gospel with “integrity, fidelity and holiness”. Nothing can ever stop you from praying.

    If you're not the loud sort, then don't scream. One can still make their witness known to others by the example of their actions. We belong to a beautiful faith, and we have a beautiful leader, who is beseeching us to grow in it – for we can never ever do too much to please our Lord! :)

    And, people, believe it or not, Pope Benedict XVI's message truly has been heard… for I've just been off the phone with someone who wants to become Catholic ;)

    I truly encourage everyone interested, to print out ALL of the Holy Father's speeches, and reflect on them personally! There's something in there for everyone ;) (http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/breaking/2010/09/19/the-definitive-guide-to-the-papal-visit-2010/)

    I shall continue to write my blog. I shall continue to embrace social media to achieve this “evangelisation of culture”. And I shall continue to reach out to young people who wish to open their hearts to the love of God. Spreading the Gospel message through social media is but one way I actively fulfill my role as an ordinary Catholic lay, remain obedient to God's will, and 'rise to the challenge' given by my beloved Pope Benedict XVI. :)

    So, I invite all people, in particular any young person, who feels there's room in your hearts to let God in, or to get more active, to begin that communication with any active Catholic! As a young Catholic, I'm all for meeting new people, and speaking openly about my faith. My twitter is @pilgrimclaz. Don't be afraid – I'm all cool, and human just like you.

  • GFFM

    Benedict did exactly what the faithful knew he would: peacefully deliver his message. His serenity contrasts to the apoplexy of the fanatical protests against the Church. I do hope he continues to engage victims of the clerical abuse directly. They, “the little ones” deserve his attention and his personal help as Christ's Vicar.

  • Helena

    I am a 40-something professional woman in Ireland. Alison's sentiments mirror mine almost exactly.

    Speaking with like-minded friends during and since the Pope's visit, I sense an almost palpable collective reawakening of spiritual consciousness amongst us, not manifested in a dramatic sense, but rather in a shared exercise of questioning, in parallel with a quieter personal quest to re-examine our spiritual dimension and reconsider our lives. Questions that have been spurring me in my own personal quest have been:

    Morally, if I do not stand for something, have I inadvertently placed myself in the sorry position of in fact standing for nothing?

    Watching the protesters as they align themselves to groupings with whom they share little in terms of morals and human values, and indeed in some cases even collide morally, have I too, by default, allowed myself to become similarly aligned to groupings with whom I morally collide?

    Observing the sheer happiness in the faces and personas of the Catholic people whom I saw welcoming the Pope, I ask myself why it is that my own experience of that same depth of happiness remains solidly embedded in the past – in my days as a practising Catholic. Despite living my life as a good, kind and caring person, why has that depth of happiness not manifested itself since I stopped practising and proclaiming my faith two decades ago? Why have I suddenly tasted it again this weekend?

    In my secular lifestyle I know where my mental and physical dimensions begin and end. But as a three-dimensional being, where does my spiritual dimension begin and end? And without a fixed and unswerving spiritual reference how can I ever even begin to find out?

    Why does life suddenly feel exciting?


    Best wishes to others who, like me, are finding that fitting life into just two dimensions is no longer a comfortable fit..


  • http://twitter.com/londonistar alison fi

    Best wishes to you too Helena. Life does indeed suddenly feel exciting.Thanks for a thought provoking comment.

  • Mark

    Alison, as a lapsed Catholic it was actually the nastiness of the Pope and various church teachings/actions that motivated me to protest against his visit. The final straw was when he lied about nazi atheism. Firstly, even if the national socialists had been atheists, what would that prove? Secondly, rather than drive out religion they saw it as a valuable tool – faith, folk and family is a classic fascist ideal. There are numerous quotes from Hitler supporting theism – even where he wavered from this occasionally it would be more towards the bastardised odinism of some of his colleagues.

    The vatican's attitude to homosexuality, women, birth control and abortion all seem to me to be immoral. The defensiveness over the child abuse cases was wrong headed (and we've just seen this again in Belgium, where there appeared to be more anger other the way the police investigation was handled than over the widespread molestation revealed). Almost the first act of Ratzinger was to rehabilitate a notorious far-right holocaust denier. He even had a key role in purging the one aspect of the church I had respect for, the liberation theologists.

    Can you get much nastier than citing homosexuality as a disorder or a moral evil? If thinking so makes me an 'aggressive secularist' then I'm proud to be so.

  • Sr Sandals

    Mark, the problem with the 'extreme atheism' that the Pope talked about, as opposed to a generalised default lack of belief in God, is that it is inherently intolerant of Faith. Modern 'extreme atheism' is founded on a new unaccountable form of hubris developed since the Enlightenment, that without proof but with intolerant disdain pronounces “God is dead”. As Heidegger put the problem, “If God as the suprasensory ground and goal of all reality is dead, if the suprasensory world of the Ideas has suffered the loss of its obligatory and above it its vitalizing and upbuilding power, then nothing more remains to which man can cling and by which he can orient himself.” Nietzsche's insights into Christianity were profound, but he abhorred the weakness of the idea of God as victim, being put to death by His own people, and could only get around this stumbling block by attempting to rubbish Judeo-Christianity as a form of mental slavery. He wanted robust super-strong Gods whose only 'morality' was “become what you are”, “will to power”, and “uber alles…” The inbuilt self-destruct in this philosophy is there for all to see, and we have seen it acted out on the world stage so clearly – even a 'low-level' atheist must ask themselves is THAT what I stand for (by default). Without the 'corrective' of a personal loving God, the human race is at the mercy of a shrill and competitive spiral of violence which will never back down. Christ's death on the cross is the only contradiction to this violence. It's effect on the efficacy of violence, total war and scape-goating is felt increasingly over time – the violence fails to 'satisfy' (increasingly), hence the totalitarian regimes had to attempt slaughter on such industrial scales. They were trying to prove a lie. And don't forget that 'humanism' is a Christian idea too.

    The violence continues not just on the global (political) sphere but in the personal/social sphere too – you mention all the usual sexual 'topics' – since the Pill was introduced there has been vast amount of harm and abuse done to humanity. Is that fair? 'Consenting' or otherwise, humanity has been confused and degraded by this innovation, which tried to turn sex into a leisure pursuit among those already 'broken in', but has instead reared its own armies of serial abusers who's very own private “will to power” contradicts all that is good, beautiful and true about our existence (most recent studies also date the 'epidemic' of child abuse by priests from The Pill – coincidence?). I was born in '67 and so am obviously one of the lucky ones to have survived the hidden butchery of the seven million. These innocents together with the breakdown of the family caused by easy divorce are the biggest forms of child abuse.

    Surely, you have to ask yourself from time to time was it all worth it? Is the emptiness of the 'sex as leisure' lifestyle really 'humanist' – because I personally think it has a diabolical record, far worse than (albeit hideous) sins of individual members of the Church. I think people need to discuss these matters with honesty, not try to scapegoat a wise and prayerful man who is simply and respectfully putting it on the agenda.

  • http://twitter.com/londonistar alison fi


    As a woman I often argued ferociously against the Church’s teachings on say abortion but came to realise that the Church teachings are not grounded in evil towards women or hatred as you would try to maintain, neither are they flawed – they value a deep respect for human life that asks us to THINK about what we are doing and be better than we are in an attempt to avoid such needless ghastly actions in a Marie Stopes clinic. I also can think of a string of friends who are of no faith at all who oppose abortion. Likewise it is not only the faithful who find gay rights a major challenge when it comes to respect for family life. And again you speak of hatred. There was a lot of that on show towards Catholics on Saturday.

    With respect, it also does not necessarily follow that in challenging the Pope and aligning myself instead with the demo on Saturday I would be on the side of what is loving, tolerant, good or even morally best. For example you chose to ally yourself with Peter Tatchell who’s own views of how we as a society should adapt to include accommodating child abuse by lobbying the government into lowering the age of gay consent to 14. Not to mention his attempts to encourage a debate on sexual relations between adult and child as not always wrong. Is hiding behind Pope bashing also masking the reality of all the moral arguments on the table regards society? I drew my own conclusions in this regard and these most certainly do not lead to me think that a man who heavily influences public debate on homosexual rights is himself without need of major challenge and certainly should not be up there with people lecturing the Pope on the hideous wrongs of child abuse.

    In the end I find it fascinating that everything, absolutely everything including the secular responses to Church teaching, boils down to taking a MORAL position somewhere along the line. I have yet to find the absolute perfection of the moral position in the secular environment.

    I would only ask that on both sides of this debate, or others, that we exercise mutual respect and stop yelling at one another. Outside of the spiritual need that Helena so beautifully described, part of what I loved about the Pope’s message was the measured and polite way it was offered for us to embrace.

  • Kevin Greenan

    Bishops and priests please now listen to the laity. We have shown that we are a loyal community by our open support for Pope Benedict. At times prior to his visit I was so frustrated by the negative messages coming from the Bishops Conference. Listen to Pope Benedict, listen to us – share the burden, share the joy of being a full active Catholic. A srong active Catholic laity will be a match for any protesting mob that wants the destruction of our faith.

    We must respect our bishops and priests but in turn they must respect us too!

  • John V T

    To live as one is to survive. To all live as one is to live.

  • Mel

    Alison Fi and Helena: WELCOME HOME!

    It's not easy to return after a long break, but people admire your posts. We'll pray for you.

  • Anneg

    Alison, read the Catechism, also http://www.catholic.com, and http://www.EWTN.com We have the greatest treasure in the Catholic Faith but we MUST learn it to understand it. God Bless you and your husband.

    I love, love, love the Catholic Church.

  • Anneg

    Helena, as an Irish catholic living in England for 45 years I have had endless attacks on my catholic faith and church, but I continue in my faith and love of Jesus and his Church. Its teachings,and simple disciples, taught to me in a gentle way by the nuns, have protected and sustained me all these years of living alone with no family to support me. Without it I dread to think how my life would have been. In the storms of my life it has been my only consolation.I thank Jesus with all my heart for allowing me to brought up in the catholic church. The teachings are all there if only catholics will learn them and live them.

  • Anne

    I do wish that our Priests/Bishops encourage us off the altar to read the bible and the catechism. We are weak and we need to be encouraged – regularly – to study our faith more. Once is not enough. We have a history of being priest-led and are timid about stepping out. Encourage us please and then watch us grow.