Father Raymond J. De Souza: Measuring Benedict's Success in Britain

By Raymond J. De Souza
National Post
September 23, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI arrives to preside over a Celebration of Mass in Glasgow, Scotland on Sep. 16, 2010.

LONDON Before Pope Benedict arrived here a week ago, the probability of failure, or even embarrassment, had been predicted (and desired) by many commentators for months. By the time he returned to Rome late Sunday night, his visit was proclaimed a triumph by all but those who harbour a special hatred for the Catholic Church of which there are not a few in this country. As Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, put it, "He came; he saw; he conquered."

What does it mean for the Church, or the pope, to conquer? British Catholics, who felt as if they were under siege for months, were euphoric. While understandable, there was something a little off-key about commentators who pointed happily to the official reception by the Queen, or how the large the crowds were, or how sustained the warm ovation was at Westminster Hall, or, mirabile dictu, how even the BBC managed to restrain its more egregious anti-Catholicism for a few days. Impressive as they may be, those measures are all secular standards.

Of all the important and historic things the Benedict had to say, perhaps the most striking was what he said on the plane en route, when asked what the Church could do to make itself more attractive.

"One might say that a church which seeks above all to be attractive would already be on the wrong path, because the Church does not work for itself, does not work to increase its numbers so as to have more power," he answered. "The Church is at the service of Another; it does not serve itself, seeking to be a strong body, but it strives to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ accessible, the great truths, the great powers of love and of reconciliation that come always from the presence of Jesus Christ. In this sense, the Church does not seek to be attractive, but rather to make herself transparent for Jesus Christ."

How many pastors whether Catholic or otherwise take those words to heart? On the Saturday, the assembled ranks of the anti-pope brigade huffed and puffed, some 10,000-strong. Benedict serenely sailed past those same roads a few hours later and gathered eight times as many for just one of several events that day. But what if the numbers had been flipped, and the protestors outnumbered the pilgrims 8-to-1? Would that have meant failure?

Consider the relentless pressure on all churches to trim ancient doctrine or adapt moral teaching to something more in tune with well, what exactly? The latest shifting sands of public opinion? There have been churches that have changed wholesale their teaching in such efforts, now celebrating as holy what they previously taught was sinful. Should they be considered more or less successful for making themselves attractive?

Further, one might ask attractive to whom? The British visit occasioned many people who wish the Catholic Church nothing but ill to advise her on how to conduct herself. Why should Catholics measure their own success on the criteria of their enemies? Or consider the judgment of mass culture; should the Church seek to appeal more to the same people who choose, for entertainment purposes, to watch in large numbers people embarrass and degrade themselves on reality television?

How much damage is done to the cause of the Gospel by Christian leaders who adopt the measure of "attractiveness"? Consider the sexual-abuse scandal, where, as Benedict wrote to the Church in Ireland, Catholic bishops put too much stock on the public image of the Church, on attempting to keep her attractive in public esteem. Compassion, justice, reconciliation, penance, conversion, healing all this was sacrificed to spare the Church from looking bad.

A Church that seeks to evangelize and to convert a culture to the message of the Gospel cannot be indifferent to public opinion, and even the arts of public relations. But the temptation is to forget that conversion of hearts means moving away from secular standards to that of the Gospel.

It's fine to call Benedict's visit a triumph, but along the right lines. The most important message he gave was one hardly covered at all, to a group of schoolchildren: "I hope that among those of you listening to me today there are some of the future saints of the 21st-century. What God wants most of all for each one of you is that you should become holy."

Holiness that is the standard the Church should measure herself by. And holiness, as Britain discovered this past week, never loses its power to attract.

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