Notes from Across the Atlantic
Notes from Across the Atlantic

Notes from Across the Atlantic

Peter Mitchell FAITH Magazine November – December 2010

By Fr. Peter Mitchell, of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, and Dean of Men at St. Gregory the Great Seminary in Seward, Nebraska


As a first generation English-American who became a Catholic priest, I have grown accustomed over the years to being on the receiving end of no shortage of dismayed comments from my sensibly atheist English relatives. When I announced that I was entering the seminary, my fallen-away Catholic grandmother (may she rest in peace) said to me, "What a pity a fine young fellow like you would waste your life by going into the ministry!" Each summer my family would arrive in Oxford for tea with our elderly Aunt Mary, who habitually relished every opportunity she could find to remind my siblings and me that down the centuries religion has done nothing but cause wars and oppress people in the name of God. With great assurance she would explain to us unenlightened, almost-barbarian Americans thatEngland had gotten "beyond religion" and was a place where the Church no longer told people how to think. As she extolled the progress of such developments as "freedom of choice," she would, almost in the same breath, chide us for the immoral way in which we carnivores mercilessly ate innocent animals for dinner. Each year as we parted with a congenial "Cheerio!", I would try to say, "You'll be in my prayers, Aunt Mary," and she would reply quite confidently, "I don't need your prayers, young man, I am an atheist!" Needless to say, in the weeks leading up to Pope Benedict XVI's recent pilgrimage to Great Britain I had little expectation that my English kin would hold anything other than a dim view of the entire affair as being another example of religion wasting money, cloggingtraffic in central London, and no doubt also harming the environment. It was unthinkable, to me, that they would or even could have any other response.

Thus it was with great interest that I watched from "across the pond" last week as what indeed seemed to be unthinkable happened, not just for my family but for an entire nation. Pope Benedict made an apostolic visit to Great Britain that was cordial, positive, and well-received by the English press and people, during which he beatified John Henry Cardinal Newman, recognising him as one of the great Christian witnesses of our time, first as an Evangelical Anglican and then as a Catholic. His four remarkable days in the United Kingdom were an historic event that would have been impossible to imagine even a few short decades ago, to say nothing of a few centuries ago.

It was unthinkable, from the perspective of English history, that a Pope would be invited by the Queen to make a formal state visit to England. But visit England he did - not in worldly or political triumph (the Spanish Armada tried that approach and failed), not in direct antagonism or opposition (Pope St. Pius V's excommunication of Queen Elizabeth I in 1570 was not exactly the happiest moment in the history of either England or the Catholic Church) - but rather in solidarity with Queen Elizabeth II, the Archbishop of Canterbury, secular leaders, and all English people of good will. Benedict's message was quite simply that the Catholic Church wishes to be partners with all people who are committed to seeking truth, justice, and social progress in the secular realm. In the wordsof the Holy Father at Westminster Hall, "The world of reason and the world of faith need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilisation."

It was also unthinkable from the Catholic perspective of even fifty years ago that a papal visit could unfold in such a manner. Pope Benedict's purpose and tone as he spoke to both religious and secular leaders - overwhelmingly positive and collaborative - was the direct fruit of the landmark event that remains the most significant moment of the history of the Church in our time, the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II: the council which was foreseen as necessary by Blessed John Henry Newman; the council which formed the young Joseph Ratzinger in his theological and pastoral thinking; the council which, on his first morning as Pope, Benedict XVI declared that he was determined to put into practice, invoking John Paul II's description of the Council as a "'compass' by which to take ourbearings in the vast ocean of the third millennium." The authoritative word given by the Holy Spirit to the Church at the defining and pivotal moment of Vatican II nearly fifty years ago was especially "made incarnate" in Britain in September, 2010, during Benedict's apostolic visit: to seek unity with our separated brethren in the other Christian confessions, to affirm all that is good and true in secular culture without in any way watering down our witness to the truth of the fullness of the Christian faith, to declare without apology that the Catholic patrimony of faith and reason working in harmony remains a gift that the twenty-first century desperately needs if it is to avoid self-destruction, and which it neglects or dismisses at its own peril. Pope Benedict's four days in Englandand Scotland embodied the Pontiff simply doing what the Holy Spirit, through the documents of Vatican II, has asked of the Church. Gaudium et Spes and Unitatis Redintegratio took flesh as the Pontiff spoke to the Queen, the Parliament, the Anglican bishops, and all English people of whatever creed or conviction. Yet all this transpired without the slightest compromise of Catholic identity. Benedict presented himself quite clearly as the Successor of Peter, bound by Jesus Christ to labour for the unity of the Church and the proclamation of the Gospel, in continuity with the same papacy which initiated the first evangelisation of England at the time of St. Gregory the Great some fourteen centuries ago. Indeed, it could be argued that this pontificate's signaturecommitment to continuity with Tradition was never more visibly apparent than in Benedict's visits to both Westminster Hall and Abbey, where the Holy Father eloquently invoked the witness of Thomas More, Edward the Confessor, Bede the Venerable, and the splendid Christian tradition that has made England the great nation that it is.

A previously unthinkable recovery of the apostolic and patristic mission of the Bishop of Rome seems to be occurring at the dawn of the third Christian millennium. This is a recovery which began with the intellectual groundwork laid by theologians such as Newman, de Lubac, and von Balthasar prior to Vatican II and was given affirmation and direction by the Council's deeply evangelising and unifying imperative. It has now been given concrete expression in the numerous apostolic journeys of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both living witnesses of that great moment of Pentecost in the life of the Church that was and is the Second Vatican Council. John Paul the Great restored an awareness of the apostolic identity of the papacy during his twenty-six years of travelling the globe, largelythrough his personal charisma and unflagging zeal. Now, with a beautiful complementarity, Pope Benedict is putting his own particular patristic stamp on the mission of the Successor of Peter - he travels and speaks in the midst of an increasingly pagan culture as a teacher of faith and a witness to the truth and reason of the Christian claim. The historico-cultural context in which the papacy finds itself at the beginning of the twenty-first century has significantly more in common with the era of the great Fathers of the Church such as Athanasius, Ambrose or Gregory the Great than with more recent centuries. Newman's life and work was devoted towards the recovery of the patristic tradition in both Catholic and Protestant circles, and he applauded it as a necessary step towards thereunification of the Church that had been shattered at the Reformation. We Christians of the Third Millennium, guided by the Second Vatican Council and its great champions John Paul and Benedict, are graced to be witnessing a return of the papacy and episcopacy to the model of the age of the Fathers: boldly evangelical, passionately committed to mission, and with true humility inviting the men and women of our time to consider the proposal that truth is to be found in the person of Jesus Christ.

Sensing the "newness" of Pope Benedict's approach (which is, in fact, an ancient one) and aware of the historic magnitude and importance of his visit, an unthinkable thing happened among my English relatives - they were inspired! On the evening following the Pope's Mass in Birmingham beatifying Newman, Aunt Mary rang up my father, who listened with astonishment as she spoke of how she had followed every minute of the papal visit on BBC2. "The Pope has been really marvellous," she said, declaring that he had been "a terrific influence," and that he had "said all the right things." She applauded his message of the world's need for faith and moral values as "just the thing our youth need to hear." "The Pope has made us think," she said, "and I feel changed after listening tohim." An unthinkable comment about an unthinkable moment in the history of England, the Church, and even Western civilisation. And kudos to both my Aunt Mary and to Pope Benedict for their humility, good will, and mutual respect.

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