Virginia Barton

A few days when, truly, “Heart Spoke Unto Heart”

THE EAGLE, October 2010


Virginia Barton provides a first-hand account of Pope Benedict XVI’s historic visit to the United Kingdom, September 16-19, 2010, the highlight of which was the beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman.


There was an embarrassment of riches and our cup overflows. It took us by surprise and was a “triumph over cynicism.” This coming of the Pope, compared to Daniel entering the lion’s den by the London Times correspondent a day or two before it happened, has confounded the critics and been a resounding success.

From the first moment the Holy Father set foot on Scottish soil for this unprecedented State Visit at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth II, this quiet old man, gentle and kindly of aspect, won the respect and hearts of a British public more often seen as thoroughly secularized. A polite, restrained rather British reaction was expected. After all, this was not John Paul II. Pope Benedict’s predecessor came to the U.K. in 1982 for a pastoral visit and was always going to be a hard act to follow. The rapture with which he was greeted is still fresh in many minds. His vigour, extrovert personality, large embrace, and easy communicative skills had endeared him to a worldwide audience.

Like Mother Teresa and Princess Diana, he was a true celebrity. And we dearly love a celeb.

Pope Benedict came here without the mantle of stardom, and he came at a difficult time for the Church. The cost of the visit was deeply resented by many; the taxpayer must fund the State aspect and security of the visit, the Church the rest. Vocations to the priesthood have slumped alarmingly. The numbers of Catholics attending Mass has fallen. Everywhere there are loud-mouthed critics, Catholics among them, of our schools, our teaching on contraception, abortion, stem-cell research, same-sex marriages, women’s ordination, and so on. Despite the fact that other faiths hold many of these moral teachings in common with us, we seem to bear the brunt – perhaps it is a sort of compliment?

And over all this hangs the grave shadow of child sex abuse by priests. “These unspeakable crimes that shame and humiliate us,” as the Pope said in his homily in Westminster Cathedral. These crimes have shocked every single Catholic in the land, be they church-going or not. The stigma and the appalling betrayal of trust by those held in esteem has rocked the laity like nothing before. We are all shamed and humiliated and find it hard to see how to restore that trust and respect once so freely given.

During his visit of just three days, the Holy Father celebrated three huge public Masses, the first within hours of his arrival in Glasgow. He addressed thousands of children at a big assembly; gave several keynote speeches including one in historic Westminster Hall, where St. Thomas More was condemned to death; and met the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, at Lambeth Palace, the 800-year-old home of English archbishops both pre- and post-Reformation. There was Evening Prayer in Westminster Abbey, a truly ecumenical occasion with prayers at the tombs of the Unknown Warrior and of St. Edward the Confessor.

Thousands gathered in the gloaming in Hyde Park for the Vigil before the beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman, 19th-century scholar, priest, and convert from Anglicanism, which took place in Birmingham on the last day of this historic visit.

It is almost impossible to pick out one instance of the Holy Father being among us over another. The gentle delicacy with which he mingled with people even older than himself at a Care Home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor; or the smiles of delight that greeted him on the faces of the children who had been waiting for hours, just to get a glimpse of him as he passed in the Popemobile. Security was very tight. To attend any of the public Masses, application had to be made weeks before through one’s parish; passports or other identification with photo had to be produced, and a wristband worn. The people had to be in their allotted places hours before the ceremonies. This ruled out the older folk, but they had the advantage of superb TV coverage and informed commentary.

Quite apart from the virtual coverage on the Internet – where, incidentally, all the Pope’s speeches and homilies may be read ( or Never have I listened with such care to the words of a priest or re-read them with such joy.

john-everett-millais-portrait-of-cardinal-newman_i-G-15-1504-SNFBD00ZOxford is haunted by this shy, aesthetic man. There are so many places where he had been, be it his beloved college Oriel, his own Anglican parish church at Littlemore, or the meadows and fields he knew so well and where he walked and talked with friends.The beatification of Cardinal Newman had to be the pinnacle of the visit, longed and prayed for by so many for so long. It took place in Cofton Park, Birmingham. John Henry Newman was a brilliant scholar, poet and theologian. He was an Anglican clergyman, noted for his electrifying sermons at St. Mary’s, the Oxford University church. His conversion to Catholicism stunned contemporary Oxford where he was a leading light in the Tractarian movement. He loved his Anglican faith – the language, the liturgy, and not least his friends. Like so many after him, it was hard to leave the comfort of familiar territory and the goodwill of many. But Newman boldly held firm to his belief in the true Church, announcing his conversion from his own pulpit.

The Holy Father began his beatification homily by noting that it was a Sunday, a day of sacrifice and salvation. He then talked most movingly about Battle of Britain Day, the 70th anniversary of which was being remembered in Westminster Abbey as he spoke. This alone must have endeared him to almost everybody listening.

David Cameron, Prime Minister, saying farewell later that same day, said, “Your Holiness, on this truly historic first State Visit to Britain [by a Pope] you have spoken to a nation of six million Catholics but you have been heard by a nation of more than 60 million citizens and by many millions more all around the world.”

Truly, these few days was a time when Heart Spoke Unto Heart; to quote our beloved new Blessed.



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