LONDON – The conservative politician charged with overseeing the planning for the pope’s recent visit to Britain hailed it as “historic” and proof that faith groups and the Catholic Church are still relevant today.
Chris Patten, who is currently the chancellor of the University of Oxford, said the sight of Pope Benedict XVI standing side by side with Queen Elizabeth II and the turnout of all generations and ethnicities to see the pontiff represented the extent to which Catholics in the U.K. are not a minority but “part of the mainstream of public life in every sector.”
“One sign of the Pope's relevance is the numbers who turned out to greet him, not just at the events but from Edinburgh to Glasgow, and in London, the roads were lined with people who wanted to cheer him,” said the former Member of Parliament.
“The Pope’s visit has shown that faith groups in general and the Catholic church in particular are relevant today,” he added.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, meanwhile, said Britain’s response to the pope’s visit had been “very, very positive.”
“Many people were listening with profound interest to what the Pope had to say and demonstrated joy in listening to him and to his message,” he reported.
“We have seen that there were critics, but we have seen more times that there were people who were happy and, in this sense, we find that it was very, very positive, the way in which the Pope has been received here,” the reverend added.
Before he flew back to Rome Sunday night, the pope endured a grueling four-day schedule that included three open air masses in Glasgow, London and Birmingham, an address to politicians in Westminster Hall, and meetings with church leaders and representatives of other faiths.
During his time in Britain, the pope apologized several times for the “shameful” abuse of children by Catholic priests and also spoke out against the “marginalization” of religion in nations that even place great emphasis on tolerance.
“Religion is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation,” Benedict told members of Britain’s houses of parliament Friday.
Patten, who was appointed by the British government to oversee planning for the pope’s visit, said the pope’s speeches had challenged Britons to realize that “other things matter” and given them a sense in which the state of the nation could not be judged simply by per capita GDP figures.
The conservative politician said he hoped Benedict’s visit would make people think deeper about the sort of society they wanted to live in and their social responsibilities.
“I hope it will make us realize we need a serious dialogue between religious and secular groups,” Patten said.
“I hope it will give people of all faiths more self confidence to stand up for themselves and to make the point that faith matters to society,” he added.
Ahead of Benedict’s visit, the Evangelical Alliance, the largest body of evangelicals in the United Kingdom, had encouraged Christians of all denominations to “wholeheartedly welcome” Benedict’s visit “for the sake of fighting for religious liberty."
It later welcomed the pope’s defense of Britain’s Christian heritage and his outspoken remarks against “aggressive forms of secularization.”
The Evangelical Alliance also said the pope’s visit had paved the way for Christians to play an even greater role in supporting Britain’s poor and needy in the wake of big cuts in government spending.
The pope’s visit to Britain last week was the first ever official state visit by a pontiff to Britain and the first visit by a pope since John Paul II made a pastoral visit in 1982.
Benedict left Britain Sunday night and returned to Rome a few hours later.