Pope Benedict XVI urges Britain not to let secularism overshadow Christianity
Pope Benedict XVI arrived Thursday in Britain to an enthusiastic reception by fellow Roman Catholics and promptly warned the country not to let rampant secularism swamp or destroy its Christian roots.
“The United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society,” the pontiff said shortly after landing in Scotland to begin a four-day tour. “May it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate. Let it not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms.”
The German-born pope cited the evils of Nazism as an example of the consequences of “atheist extremism.”
His exhortation, delivered at the British royal residence in Edinburgh, launched the first-ever state visit by a pope to this increasingly non-religious nation, which broke with Rome almost half a millennium ago under Henry VIII.
The current occupant of the throne, Queen Elizabeth II, was on hand to welcome the pontiff in a simple meeting Thursday morning that brought together two octogenarians who are both heads of state as well as leaders of their own separate strands of Christianity. The queen is the titular head of the Church of England.
Later, more than 100,000 well-wishers greeted Benedict as he traveled the streets of Edinburgh in his specially designed popemobile, with his shoulders wrapped in a green Tartan scarf. Scattered protests made hardly a dent in the larger din of cheers and applause.
The pope also led tens of thousands of participants in an open-air Mass in Glasgow early Thursday evening under brilliant blue skies in the same park where his predecessor, John Paul II, met even larger, more rapturous crowds in 1982 during a pastoral visit.
That visit was generally more warmly received than this one, in part because of John Paul’s charisma and his status as a heroic crusader against communism. Benedict’s state visit, by contrast, has inspired strong opposition from human rights activists, scientists, feminists, gay rights advocates and critics of the Vatican’s response to widespread allegations of child molestation by priests and religious workers.
Speaking to reporters on the flight from Rome, Benedict acknowledged that the church had been too slow to remove abusive clerics and to protect their victims. “The authority of the church wasn’t sufficiently vigilant and not sufficiently quick or decisive,” he said.
The pope is expected to meet with abuse victims during his visit. They and other critics say that the Vatican has been more concerned with damage limitation and covering up suspected abuse than with seeking justice for those subjected to it.
At his public appearances Thursday, the pontiff sounded one of the principal themes of his papacy and one of the clear goals of his visit to Britain, which is to call Europe back to Christian values and beliefs.
Expanding on his warning about the “aggressive forces of secularism” earlier in the day, Benedict urged attendees at the Mass in Glasgow to fight back against those “who now seek to exclude religious belief from public discourse … or even to paint it as a threat to equality and liberty.”
“Religion is in fact a guarantee of authentic liberty and respect, leading us to look upon every person as a brother or sister,” he said. “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 many ways, the pope’s homily was a more diplomatic version of comments that landed one of his aides in trouble on the eve of the visit. In an interview with a German journal, Cardinal Walter Kasper described Britain as a “Third World country” that is incubating an “aggressive new atheism.”
Kasper’s remarks made front-page headlines here. The Vatican hastily announced that the cardinal, who was scheduled to accompany Benedict to Britain, would not be coming but insisted that his withdrawal was due to ill health rather than the controversy his comments caused.
The pope is scheduled to spend Friday and Saturday in London.