"Non Angli, sed angeli!" The Pope’s visit to Britain
"Non Angli, sed angeli!" The Pope’s visit to Britain by Donal Anthony Foley
The visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain, from 16 to19 September, is a very special moment, and one which may have wider repercussions for the rest of world including the United States, as we will see.
Its high point will be the beatification of John Henry Newman at Cofton Park in Birmingham, but the Pope will also spend time in Scotland and around London. This is the first papal visit to Britain since that of Pope John Paul II in 1982, nearly 30 years ago now. The country has changed a lot since then as has the Catholic Church in terms of vitality - to the extent that it is clear that the reception Pope Benedict will receive will be much more mixed than that accorded to his predecessor.
There are a lot of reasons for this, but principally it boils down to the fact that the “world” has become much more hostile to the Church and the papacy, with the focus of this hostility being the on-going sexual abuse scandal within the Church.
The papal visit raises some important questions. Where is the Church in Britain going? Does it have a future? And if so, how is that going to play out? There are not enough vocations to keep priestly numbers at the levels people are used to, and indeed Catholics are facing a situation where, certainly in some dioceses, one priest might well have to look after 4 or 5 parishes in the not too distant future, as is the case with some parts of Europe.
What then does the Pope hope to achieve by his visit to Britain? Will it just be a flash in the pan, or will it have a more long term effect? I think we can get some idea of how important any papal visit might be and this visit in particular, by looking at things from a longer historical perspective.
Before the Reformation, England was a very Catholic country, with devotion to Our Lady being particularly marked, to the extent that the country was known as Our Lady’s “dowry” or special portion. There has also been a long link between the papacy and Britain, going back as far as Pope Gregory the Great’s decision to send St Augustine of Canterbury to evangelize the pagan Anglo-Saxons. And it was from England that the annual Peter’s Pence payment was first made, from the eighth century onwards. But the Reformation, which was really a revolution, changed all that, and the ancient Faith, including devotion to the Our Lady and the link with the papacy was overthrown, through a mixture of brutality, propaganda and adverse historical circumstances. Thus, within a few generations of Luther’s revolt, the country had done a volte-face, and become Protestant.
This defection of England from the Catholic faith was perhaps the most significant event of the Reformation, in that, without it, the revolt against the Church might well have been confined to mainland Europe and thus failed. The historian, Warren H. Carroll, points out that if Henry had remained faithful, allied to Catherine of Aragon, the best daughter of Isabel and Ferdinand, he could have worked with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to restore Christendom. This failure was all the more tragic, given that the United States ultimately became a Protestant country because of England’s rejection of Catholicism. If Spain, France and England could have worked together in North and South America, a new vibrant “Catholic” hemisphere could have been created in the West. Perhaps much of the rivalry and dissension between the various European countries might have been avoided, and Christendom saved. It is possible to argue that if this had happened, then many of the evils besetting the modern world would never have occurred. And the fact that Our Lady chose to appear at Guadalupe in Mexico, at the beginning of the modern era, is proof that the New World was meant to be Catholic- and probably is destined to be completely Catholic in the future.
But it was not to be, and so very gradually and painfully, over the following centuries, Catholicism had to attempt to regain its former place in Britain, particularly in the period following Cardinal Newman’s conversion. So that the Pope is also coming to beatify him is of particular significance at this present moment.
Newman preached his famous “Second Spring” sermon in 1852, and it was in the years immediately following this that some remarkable prophesies were made regarding Catholicism in England. These came from two individuals who would go on to become canonized saints. The first of these was St John Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, who was visited in France by Archbishop Ullathorne of Birmingham in May 1854. He has left this description of what happened as he was explaining to the Curé the need for prayers for English Catholics, who were suffering so much:
“ ‘...suddenly he interrupted me by opening those eyescast into shadow by their depth, when listening or reflectingand streaming their full light upon me in a manner I can never forget, he said, in a voice as firm and full of confidence as though he were making an act of faith. ... ‘I believe that the Church in England will recover her ancient splendor.’ ”
The second comes from St Dominic Savio, the protégé of St John Bosco, who, one day towards the end of 1856, hearing that Don Bosco was planning a visit to Rome to see Pope Pius IX, confided to his mentor that he wished he could speak with the Holy Father, as he had something very important to tell him. Don Bosco agreed to try and pass on Dominic’s message, which was as follows: “Tell the Holy Father that in the midst of all the trials that await him, he should not lessen his special care for England. God is preparing a great triumph for the Church in that country.”
Don Bosco asked Dominic what made him say that, and he agreed to tell him, but asked that he keep it secret and tell no one but the Pope. Don Bosco said he would do that and then Dominic explained what had happened.
“I was making my thanksgiving after Holy Communion one day [when] I seemed to be in a wide plain. There was a great deal of mist, and people were groping about as though they had lost their way. I heard a voice say: ‘This is England.’ While I watched I saw another figure coming towards me. He wore robes just like those I have seen in the picture of the Pope, in our class room and in the refectory. He was holding a huge, flaming torch in his hand, and wherever he passed the mist disappeared. Soon it was as clear as mid-day. Then I heard the voice again. It said: ‘This torch is the Catholic faith which is to illumine England.’ ”
When Pius IX heard this story from Don Bosco he was greatly moved, and said to him: “What you have told me confirms me in my resolution to work with even greater energy for England, to which I already devote so much of my time and my prayers.”
So despite the present situation of the Church in Britain, which frankly speaking is not good, there is hope for the future, that there will be a return to the ancient Faith, however unlikely this might appear at the moment. Both of those prophecies were made nearly 150 years ago, so obviously God’s plan for Britain is a long term one.
Given that preparations for a papal visit are under way, and that the Pope of St Dominic’s vision was clearly involved in the revival of Catholicism in England, it is perhaps worth comparing the way the Papacy has developed since the mid-nineteenth century with the situation Britain now finds itself in.
The Papal States, which covered parts of central Italy, had historically allowed the Popes to have autonomy and not be dependent on secular princes. But by the mid-nineteenth century as the movement for Italian reunification grew, pressure was increasingly exerted on the papacy to relinquish control over these territories. This finally took place in 1870, when Pius IX became the “prisoner in the Vatican,” a situation maintained by his successors until the signing of the Lateran treaty between Pope Pius XI and Mussolini in 1929.
The important point about all this is that the tremendous pressure put on Pius IX had the paradoxical effect of effecting a growth in papal prestige, as the Pope increasingly came to be seen as the true Father of all Catholics, defending the rights of the Church. The enemies of the Church has expected that once the papacy was deprived of its temporal possessions it would rapidly dwindle in influence, but quite the opposite happened - just as temporal papal power was being eclipsed, the Pope’s spiritual authority grew stronger.
There is a lesson for Britain here certainly, but it has a wider application too, indeed a worldwide one. Britain, like the papacy, once had extensive territorial possessions, but these have now virtually disappeared. The country also finds itself in a very serious financial situation, but perhaps this rather large cloud will turn out to have a significant silver lining. It’s possible to see this temporal decline as giving rise to an increase in genuine spirituality in Britain, as living conditions become more difficult and people turn back to God. And that will be a great opportunity for the Church, and not just regarding Britain - all the Western nations, including the United States, look as though they are heading for a prolonged period of austerity. How severe this will be is impossible to tell at the moment, but the signs are not promising.
The above historical details show just how crucial the role of England has been in world history, and also, given the “Special Relationship” between the United States and Britain, how a future revival of the Faith in Britain could have profound implications for the United States and the rest of the world. Britain once had an empire, and was the world super power, just as the United States now holds that position; and Britain’s colonial legacy is the Commonwealth, which still has 54 member countries around the world. And Britain, despite it’s present deplorable spiritual and cultural state is still very influential, with many countries continuing to look to her for inspiration and new ideas, although that influence is steadily diminishing. Just as the United States and Britain worked together to defeat Nazism in World War II, so in the future there is the possibility of a new common fight against the culture of death, as the influence of the Church steadily grows in the new evangelization, which has been so much encouraged by recent popes. And such a resurgence of the Church in such influential countries would be bound to have world-wide repercussions.
There is a real battle going on at the moment for the soul of Britain, a battle which the Church and those on the side of truth are losing, so the visit of Pope Benedict is undoubtedly an important spiritual moment which should be seized and not frittered away.
All of the above, and particularly the prophecies of St John Vianney and St Dominic, don’t of course mean Catholics in Britain, or the United States, or the West generally, can just sit back and do nothing as we wait for the promised “great triumph” of the Church, but it does mean that the future is a lot brighter for Catholicism than might seem to be the case. Thus, there are very good reasons for celebrating Pope Benedict’s visit, particularly since St Dominic Savio’s vision clearly indicates that the Papacy will be very bound up with the future re-evangelization of Britain, and by implication, the world.
The published version of this article can be seen at:
Theotokos Catholic Books - Catholic Articles Section - www.theotokos.org.uk