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Culture & Religion

UK/ Britain makes room for Benedict

Coming to celebrate Newman, Benedict put the following question to British society: Do great English cultural figures like Newman have a place anymore? The visit made the question personal, too: Was there any room in Britain today for Benedict himself?  


BIRMINGHAM, England -On a drizzly, dreary English morning, Pope Benedict XVI did what he came to do -- declare the brightest light of English Catholicism "blessed." The beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman -- long desired throughout the English-speaking Catholic world -- is the Church's formal declaration that he is in heaven, and a suitable intercessor for public worship.

The elevation of Newman to the honour of the altars capped a successful visit to Britain -- a surprise to those anxious after months of hostile criticism. Benedict's gentle shyness and exquisite good manners endeared him to the British people, even as he presented them with a clear challenge about the danger of driving faith out of their public life.

Those manners were on display yesterday, as the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain was observed nationwide.

"For me, as one who lived and suffered through the dark days of the Nazi regime in Germany, it is deeply moving to be here with you on this occasion, and to recall how many of your fellow citizens sacrificed their lives, courageously resisting the forces of that evil ideology," said the German pontiff, in another astonishing historical moment on this first state visit for a pope.

Benedict did not come here to address the challenge of secular fundamentalism in Britain; the primary purpose of the trip was to beatify Cardinal Newman. Once that decision was made, the rest of the visit was built around it, and the secularist challenge followed.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of Newman to Benedict himself, and to English-speaking Catholics the world over. After his election in 2005, Benedict decided not to preside over beatification ceremonies himself, leaving it to local bishops instead.

That he made an exception for the great 19th-century theologian and priest indicates his esteem for Newman,--one of his intellectual "heroes" since his days as a student. John Henry Newman was arguably the greatest English thinker of the 19th century -- and certainly the greatest master of English prose style in the long history of his country.

A celebrated Anglican cleric and scholar at Oxford as young man, Newman was the living example of what Benedict said to the Queen, namely that "the Christian message has been an integral part of the language, thought and culture of the peoples of these islands for more than a thousand years."

So when he decided to forfeit his position and prestige in 1845 to become a Catholic, it was a decisive moment for English-speaking Catholics. Always a minority outside of Ireland -- in England, America, Canada, India, Africa -- English-speaking Catholics often knew martyrdom and persecution. They also knew the disdain that their Anglican betters held for what they considered the less educated, less cultured, backward foreign faith from across the Irish Sea.