The Pope’s Trip to England

Today is the Feast of Our Lady of the Angels of the Portiuncula (in Assisi, Italy). A brief reflection on the feast, and an editorial on the Pope’s upcoming trip to England

By Robert Moynihan

Our Lady of the Angels of the Portiuncula

Today, August 2, is the Feast of Our Lady of the Angels of the Portiuncula, the little ruined chapel (originally dedicated to the Virgin Mary) which St. Francis of Assisi rebuilt with his own hands in the valley below Assisi.

It was next to this place that the “little poor man,” whom some regard as the greatest of all the saints of the Latin tradition, died.

Francis had several early biographers, including Thomas of Celano, who recounts in a moving way the simple and devout zeal with which Francis desired to imitate Christ as closely as possible.

The words of the Gospels, Celano tells us, were Francis’ model for life.

This was the source of Francis’ sanctity — his imitation of Christ.

In this, Francis said, he found “true joy.”

From The Life of Saint Francis

by Thomas of Celano

“From there he moved to another place, which is called the Portiuncula, where there stood a church of the Blessed Virgin Mother of God built in ancient times. At that time it was deserted and no one was taking care of it.

“When the holy man of God saw it so ruined, he was moved by piety because he had a warm devotion to the Mother of all good and he began to stay there continually. The restoration of that church took place in the third year of his conversion.

“At this time he wore a sort of hermit’s habit with a leather belt. He carried a staff in his hand and wore shoes.

“One day the gospel was being read in that church about how the Lord sent out his disciples to preach. The holy man of God, who was attending there, in order to understand better the words of the gospel, humbly begged the priest after celebrating the solemnities of the Mass to explain the gospel to him.

“The priest explained it all to him thoroughly line by line.

“When he heard that Christ’s disciples should notpossess gold or silver or money, or carry on their journey a wallet or a sack, nor bread nor a staff, not to have shoes nor two tunics, but that they should preach the kingdom of God and penance, the holy man, Francis immediately exulted in the spirit of God.

“‘This is what I want,” he said, “this is what I seek, this is what I desire with all my heart.”

“The holy father, overflowing with joy, hastened to implement the words of salvation, and did not delay before he devoutly began to put into effect what he heard.”

The Pope’s Upcoming September 16-19 Trip to England

Over the next few weeks, the press will focus ever more attention on Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Great Britain (Scotland and England) from September 16 to 19.

In this regard, I feel it is important to make two points.

First, conflict.

Benedict is one of the most intelligent and eloquent and poetic defenders in the world today of a vision of human life in which there is a dimension which transcends the purely material, the purely utilitarian.

Great Britain is the home of utilitarianism, of a pragmatic, problem-solving, technological view of human affairs.

This would suggest that there could be a “clash of world views” during this visit.

And I hope it will be so.

I hope the Pope lays out, in the most intelligent, eloquent and poetic way, the case for a view of human affairs in which holiness plays a part, and not just profit, in which justice and generosity have a central space, not just a peripheral one, as if they were “secondary” to “the main business” of life, which, in the utilitarian view, is business.

So, I expect a conflict of world views, because I expect Benedict to express, eloquently, the Christian conviction that man has incalculable dignity — a dignity beyond financial calculation, a dignity which overturns all the calculations of every actuarial table humans can fashion.

Second, a surprising “cathartic moment.”

I expect this “conflict” to take Great Britain by surprise. I expect that the image of this small, white-haired man, preaching that human beings have a transcendent dignity, that they were made for love, not profit, will be so striking that some, unexpectedly, will be drawn to the message, and to the man presenting the message, in a way they do not anticipate now.

They may even find in this message something precious for their own lives, and for the life of the British nation: a call to return to ideals and beliefs that were once fervently held, and shaped the culture, customs and laws of the beautiful islands across the channel from France, but which are now increasingly being rejected.

And so I foresee a cathartic moment for Britain, when, amid all the shouting, all the vilification — and there may be a lot of this — Benedict’s words are heard, and are felt to be a reminder of what many in Britain, deep down, also believe, or wish they could believe.

And in this catharsis, true patriots, true lovers of Britain, may find that, in this little professor from Bavaria, via Rome, they hear a call to return to the beliefs and traditions and customs and laws that made England “great,” and also “merry.”

This is the background for the remarks that I have just published in the August-September “Special Issue” of Inside the Vatican previewing the Pope’s trip to Great Britain, as my editorial. Here below is that text. I would urge readers to order extra copies of this issue, especially in Great Britain, as I think it provides a balanced, comprehensive view of all the chief issues the Pope will confront during his visit. (To order extra copies, write: [email protected])

The following is the text of the editorial of the August-September “Special Issue” of Inside the Vatican, now at the printers.

Why Is Benedict XVI Going to England?

Benedict XVI is going to Great Britain to preach the Gospel, to call the British back to the faith which once shaped their culture, their law, their art and architecture, their hopes and aspirations — faith in Christ, and in his cross…

By Robert Moynihan

“Many might be tempted to ask why we Christians celebrate an instrument of torture, a sign of suffering, defeat and failure. It is true that the Cross expresses all these things. And yet, because of him who was lifted up on the Cross for our salvation, it also represents the definitive triumph of God’s love over all the evil in the world… The Cross, then, is something far greater and more mysterious than it at first appears.” —Pope Benedict XVI, June 5, 2010, Cyprus

There have been many surmises about why Benedict has chosen to visit Great Britain. Some of the analysis has been informed, much uninformed, and some motivated by plain bigotry. The media has exploited the confusion created by this mix to play its role of generating controversies, creating suspicions, finding villains, even to reporting Ian Paisley’s predictable indictment that the Pope is the Antichrist and should not be allowed to enter the country.

Benedict’s reasons for going to Great Britain are quite clear, though obscured by those unwilling to accept his word. His reasons are not only simple, but touch on the essence of his faith and the faith of the Church.

What is immediately clear is that he wishes personally to beatify the remarkable 19th century Christian scholar and convert to Catholicism, John Henry Cardinal Newman — a man he has studied and admired for nearly 60 years. And, around that beatification, he wishes to visit his Scottish and English flocks in hopes of strengthening them in their faith.

In the eyes of some observers, the legitimacy of these pastoral purposes is compromised by Benedict’s stated concern for those “high church” Anglicans who have openly asked to be received as a body into the Catholic Church.

How, these critics ask, will it be possible to maintain cordial relations between Rome and Canterbury if a large group of Anglicans, with the Pope’s encouragement, breaks away from the Church of England and enters the Catholic Church?

Benedict’s answer, in a sense, will be to encourage the conversion and simultaneously stress the common baptismal bond shared by all Christians. He will do this by a highly symbolic joint prayer service with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Then there are the liberal Christians, accusatory secularists and militant atheists who have depicted Benedict as visiting England and Scotland to campaign against human rights, specifically, against new British laws that reject Christian teachings on marriage and promote same-sex relationships.

These accusers are so fired up at the prospect of the Pope’s presence in Great Britain that they have openly called for his arrest and deportation as a human rights offender and a man criminally responsible for the sexual crimes of priests. (British officials have taken steps to ensure that the militant secularists do publicly try to arrest and pillory Benedict.)

Such conflicting views of Benedict’s presence in Great Britain threaten to turn a religious pilgrimage into a political free-for-all.

Let’s state as clearly as possible what has moved Benedict to visit Scotland and England. Yes, Newman’s beatification, yes, the situation of British Catholics, yes, Anglicans longing to join the Catholic Church, yes, the hope of maintaining ties with Anglicanism.

But at the heart of Benedict’s journey is the belief that God is in charge of His world, that nothing happens without a purpose, that men can take part in God’s plan for the world.

Like his predecessors, he believes there are no accidents in history, only events we cannot fully grasp or explain convincingly, but events God will one day allow us to understand.

Over and over Joseph Ratzinger has said that divine providence rules the world.

He believes that the Gospel’s encounter with Greek thought providentially determined the way the Church developed. He holds that, though we can never predict in advance how things will turn out, things which seem to be harmful to the spread of the Gospel may eventually be seen even as a blessing.

His initial attraction to Newman may have been to Newman’s theological writing, but his strongest attachment to him is surely to the man of faith, a man who could say of himself: “I understood… that the exterior world, physical and historical, was but the manifestation to our senses of realities greater than itself. Nature was a parable, Scripture was an allegory, pagan literature, philosophy and mythology, properly understood, were but a preparation for the Gospel. The Greek poets and sages were, in a sense, prophets.”

Benedict wants to be in England not because theologians are of crucial importance, but because saints are absolutely essential to the growth, purification and existence of the Church.

Benedict wants to be in England because a new paganism has triumphed in Western society, articulately in England. In many ways he is motivated by what he said in God and the World: “Whenever a person or society refuses to take God’s business seriously, some way or the other, the fate of Gomorrah overtakes them again… Whenever any society turns away from fellowship with the living God, it cuts the root of its social cohesion. We see such retribution at work even today.”

He is in England to point out the “narrow way” that leads away from the dead end and desolation of “Gomorrah” — the “narrow way” taken by More, Fisher, Newman, and countless thousands of others.

The militant advocates of Sodom recognize the danger Benedict presents to their program, so they describe the Pope’s English visit as a mission to promote superstition and the implicit evil of traditional Christianity.

But it is something else altogether.

It is a mission to dispel superstition and lies, and to call the British back to the truth which many still recall, deep down: that men and women have an eternal destiny, that this fallen world has been redeemed, and that that redemption frees men from fear and frustration, even from their own self-loathing.

It is a message of hope, and he will preach it fearlessly, though the prophets of perdition would silence him and caricature his message as anything but what it is.

They will attempt to drown out his call, but he will issue it anyway, to all with ears to hear: that it is not too late to change course, that there is still time for a new direction, still time to embrace the path that leads not to death, but to life, and true joy.


“He that takes truth for his guide, and duty for his end, may safely trust to God’s providence to lead him aright.” —Blaise Pascal (French mathematician, philosopher, physicist and writer, 1623-1662)

Note: Pilgrimage with special meetings inside the Vatican. We are now beginning to take preliminary requests for our Fall 2010 and Spring 2011 pilgrimages, which will include visits to Assisi, Norcia, Rome and the Vatican. If you would like information about these trips, email us at:
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Special note: Three years ago, we participated in a concert in Rome (on March 29, 2007) in which a Russian choir and orchestra, flying in from Moscow, performed a new version of The Passion According to St. Matthew composed a few months before by the young Russian Orthodox bishop (now Metropolitan and “foreign minister” of the Russian Orthodox Church, Hilarion Alfeyev).
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Christmas Oratorio (Russian Concert) on DVD 

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