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Ferocious Reputation Undone as Smiling Gent Touches Hearts of People

Irish Times, 20 September 2010 by Patsy McGarry

With this pope it seems best to travel with low expectations but prepared for surprise, writes PATSY MCGARRY 

THERE WERE strong parallels between this papal visit to the UK and that of Pope Benedict to Turkey in November 2006. Both took place in contexts of uncertainty where the atmosphere was cold, even hostile, and popular interest was expected to be low.

In September in 2006, in his now infamous Regensburg address on “Faith, Reason and the University”, Pope Benedict quoted a medieval emperor on what he felt were the evils of Islam.

It caused an international furore that rumbled on to the point where, days before he was due to land in Turkey, it was not clear whether prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan would meet him at Ankara airport. As it happened, he did. The visit turned out to be something of a triumph.

With this pope it seems best to travel with low expectations.

It has been such also with this visit to Britain. It was, as Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi said yesterday, “a wonderful trip. Very many people listened with profound interest to what the pope had to say.”

There can be no doubt that it has been a success. The crowds were not as big as when John Paul visited in 1982, but they were never expected to be. Even so, numbers were surprising, particularly on the Mall in London on Saturday evening.

It was at the level of his engagement with British society that this pope garnered most success. His Westminster Hall address last Friday evening on the role of religion in society was something of an intellectual show-stopper that was accessible to all. It was listened to by his audience with rapt attention and received with resounding appreciation.

This was reflected in British media coverage on Saturday which was positive, with particularly favourable editorials in the Daily Telegraph and Times. Indeed the level of interest in this visit by British media was unexpected, particularly where Sky and the BBC were concerned.

There was also the genuine personal warmth between Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Pope Benedict, which probably contributed more to a belief that history could be undone in relations between their churches than any of the liturgies they might share.

It would seem too that the British people in general were surprised to discover that, in place of the ferocious “panzer pope” they had been led to expect, they were presented with a smiling, polite, elderly gentleman who touched them in unexpected ways.

This was particularly the case in Birmingham yesterday when he recalled “with shame and horror” the 70th anniversaries of the Battle of Britain and the bombing of Coventry. Such words uttered by a German who, as he said, “lived and suffered through the dark days of the Nazi regime”, gave the sentiment great force.

All that said, this visit unleashed in advance an anti-Catholicism in Britain which many had thought dead.

Dressed in the new clothes of “equality for all”, this vicious, vituperative style betrayed its true, ugly identity.