Benedict the Media Darling?

Times of Malta
September 19, 2010

It was always going to be an interesting exercise to see how the British media would react once the Pope actually set foot in the UK. If the build-up was anything to go by, Benedict XVI should have been feeling trepidation as he walked down the steps of the Alitalia aircraft at Edinburgh airport.

Stories abounded of untaken tickets for various events and how his four-day state visit would be overshadowed by incidents of child sex abuse committed by members of the Catholic Church over the years.

The 70,000 people who gathered to hear him celebrate Mass on the rarest of sunny days in Glasgow put paid to the first story, while the Pontiff displayed a measure of media savvy in an attempt to dampen the effect of the second.

To the members of the press gathered on the aircraft, he chose to tackle the issue at some length, saying in stronger terms than before: "The authority of the Church was not sufficiently vigilant and not sufficiently swift and decisive" when it came to dealing with clerical sex abuse. Paedophiles, he said, must be "excluded from any possibility of access to young people, because we know this is an illness where free will does not work".

These comments did not stop protests taking place, nor did they quell the justified anger of some. But unlike previous occasions where this Pope has created the wrong kind of stir with his words onboard aircraft, he managed to feed the media hounds the starter they wanted. This meant that they have since, rather seamlessly, turned the majority of their attention towards the substantive content of his visit. The length and breadth of the coverage has been quite remarkable.

As it enters its final day, this has not been a straightforward visit by any means. Not only did the Pope face the prospect of a more hostile population certainly more than when he visited our shores but he also had to engage with the Church of England, with which he has had scrapes in recent years. First, with the Catholic Church's scathing comments about the ordination of women priests and, second, perhaps more pointedly, after the Pontiff's open invitation to Anglican priests to join the Church of Rome.

However, with the cooperation of the cerebral Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, Benedict has managed to a larger extent than expected to win the hearts of the British with his gentle manner and unassuming attitude. This provided him with the platform to make a bold call to the British public of all places at Westminster Hall, where Catholic martyr Thomas More was tried for treason and condemned to death not to marginalise Christianity and to eschew political correctness.

Memories of the visit to Britain will start to fade in the coming days, but one fact lingers on: Love it or hate it, no one can deny that the Catholic Church is still significant in the world. The normally sceptical media, even in secular Britain, are still all ears for what the Church has to say.

So long as things remain that way, the Church will retain the power with which to impart its teaching, as well as moral authority. The biggest danger it faces, of course, is indifference.

And while on recent evidence there is still some time to go before the Church keels over into such a black abyss, there are priests, even in Malta, who are causing that camp to grow larger with their out-of-touch and rather ironically in the context of what the Pope said last Friday marginalising statements. The Church must show willingness to put that right.

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