The Pope saved the most important news of his visit to the United Kingdom for the end. Most people didn’t even hear or see it. But I imagine Thomas More and John Henry Newman were smiling . . .
In November of 2009, Pope Benedict XVI issued an extraordinary invitation to Anglicans disaffected by the changes taking place in their communion. The failure to affirm traditional Christian orthodoxy, the ordination of gays, and the recent push to create female Anglican bishops have splintered the communion and caused heartbreak among both clergy and laity. Anglicans all over the world, parishes, and some dioceses had petitioned Rome to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. As a “pastoral response” the Pope released his Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus. It allows individual Anglicans, clergy, even whole dioceses to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church while retaining their traditions, devotions, and liturgical practices.
The Archbishop of Canterbury (according to a few Anglican officials I recently spoke with) felt “ambushed by the constitution” and was frustrated that there wasn’t more “consultation” before its release. Standing shoulder to shoulder with the Archbishop of Canterbury at an ecumenical prayer service at Westminster Abbey last week, the Pope made the case for “Christian unity” while recalling the real world challenges that block the way. The Pope said “fidelity” which demands obedience to God’s “true word” was needed: “an obedience which must be free of intellectual conformism or facile accommodation to the spirit of the age.” The Pope was clearly referencing the recent actions by the Anglican church which had “accommodated the spirit of the age” and created lasting barriers to the goal of full unity. But the Pope was so genial, and his delivery so mild, that the tough talk received little coverage and was largely ignored.
Then came the last speech of the Pope’s visit, a meeting with his bishops of England, Scotland, and Wales. Near the end of the address, Pope Benedict made his intentions plain, and cast new light on all that he had said and done since his arrival in Britain. He told his bishops:
I asked you to be generous in implementing the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus. This should be seen as a prophetic gesture that can contribute positively to the developing relations between Anglicans and Catholics. It helps us to set our sights on the ultimate goal of all ecumenical activity: the restoration of full ecclesial communion in the context of which the mutual exchange of gifts from our respective spiritual patrimonies serves as an enrichment to us all. Let us continue to pray and work unceasingly in order to hasten the joyful day when that goal can be accomplished.
In other words, the Pope sees his Anglican “fast pass” into the Catholic Church as the fruit of ecumenism — a chance for Anglicans to return to the faith of their fathers before the Reformation and to protect themselves from an insidious secularism that is plaguing society at large and their communion in particular.
With this understanding, the symbolic and stated message of Pope Benedict during his British sojourn comes into stark relief. His meeting with the Catholic and Anglican bishops at Lambeth Palace, the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury for 800 years (the first 70 Archbishops of Canterbury were Catholics), his visit to Westminster Abbey (built by the Catholic king, Henry III and home to Benedictine monks until the Reformation), his moving speech at Westminster Hall (where Catholic martyrs Thomas More, Edmund Campion, Bishop John Fisher, and others were condemned to death for their refusal to disavow their faith), and finally his beatification of the 19th century Anglican convert to Catholicism, Blessed John Henry Newman suddenly all seems one piece. Benedict’s visit was a stand against relativism in the heart of Europe and a plea for Britain to return to herself — to return to her Catholic roots. In a visit worthy of his predecessor, Pope Benedict, with precise language and symbols, communicated a message that will long be felt in England. It was a message controversial and reasonable, bold, and utterly faithful — a simple call, really: England, come home to what you were, and truly are.
Raymond Arroyo hosts The World Over on EWTN (http://ewtn.com/).