A triumph snatched from disaster

Former BBC journalist David Kerr was recruited by the bishops of Scotland in 2010 to develop and implement a media strategy for Pope Benedict XVI’s state visit in Scotland. He reflects on a remarkable few months in the history of the Scottish Church.

Pope Benedict XVI’s state visit to the United Kingdom in 2010 is widely regarded as one of the high points of his pontificate. He arrived into Edinburgh on the morning of September 16, the Feast of St Ninian.

Widespread predictions of public disinterest and, even, hostility soon evaporated as more than 125,000 people cheered the Holy Father through the streets of the capital while a further 70,000 gathered to pray with him at Holy Mass in Glasgow later that day.

As a senior Foreign Office official wrote to me at the conclusion of the papal trip: “The first day in Scotland was astonishing, setting the tone for the remainder of the visit.” Indeed, it did. Deo gratias. So, what changed?

Just four months prior, things had been very different. Preparations for the papal visit were going badly wrong.

What is more, details of just how badly wrong had emerged publicly within the pages of The Spectator magazine. Some of the major venues, while announced, had still not been booked.

The Church’s estimated share of the cost of the trip had also in- creased significantly such that the planned centerpiece of the visit — an open-air Mass at Coventry Airport to beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman — was facing cancellation.

Prompted by The Spectator’s revelations, the newly-elected British Prime Minister, David Cameron, acted swiftly.

Within days, Lord Patten of Barnes, the former Governor of Hong Kong, was announced as the PM’s ‘personal representative’ to co-ordinate all the UK Government elements of the visit and to work with the bishops’ conferences of England & Wales and Scotland.

Lord Patten’s appointment also hastened a significant increase in civil service support for the papal visit.

Separately, the organisation of the papal visit in Scotland had been hampered by months of non-cooperation between the Labour UK Government and the SNP Scottish Government.

Now, in a bid to demonstrate his new ‘respect agenda’ for Scotland, David Cameron asked Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, for practical suggestions of potential inter-governmental cooperation.

The first minister suggested the papal visit. The prime minister agreed. Both Patten and Salmond quickly infused their respective civil servants with clarity of purpose and, crucially, positivity.

The impending trip by Pope Benedict XVI was to regarded as ‘a good thing’. The planning of the papal visit now became more organised and more optimistic.

Elsewhere, the Scottish Catholic Media Office had commissioned internal polling that found only 5% of people in Scotland objected to the papal visit. 31% approved of it. Those in the middle were open to persuasion. That was our challenge.

Hence, our pitch to the Scottish public was simple, inclusive and always Christocentric: Pope Benedict was coming from Rome to propose the person of Jesus Christ and his Holy Church to all the peoples of Scotland.

Identical, in many ways, to the mission of St Ninian nearly 1,600 years prior.

As the Pauline inspired motto of the papal visit to Scotland stated: The hope which never disappoints is Jesus Christ. If that is true, then Pope Benedict naturally desired to meet and talk with all people of goodwill and not merely the ‘Catholic community’. The papal visit was to be a national event to which all were invited.

This meta-story informed and inspired a myriad of micro-initiatives. One example was the St Ninian’s Day Parade. It was billed as ‘a grand Scottish spectacle to welcome Benedict XVI’. And so it proved to be.

While the pope was meeting Queen Elizabeth at Holyrood on September 16, more than 1,000 pipers were making their way down Princes Street followed by a historical pageant charting the Christian history of Scotland since St Ninian.

As it happens, the young man who played the role of Ninian is now a priest in Edinburgh.

Meanwhile, hundreds of children from the 14 Scottish schools named after St Ninian – including Episcopalian and non- denominational schools – also took part in this hugely popular parade which paved the way for Pope Benedict and, in large measure, helped shape the public mood for the following days.

Another example was the St Ninian’s Day Tartan. Unveiled to great media interest at the Scottish Parliament in the week prior to the papal visit, the first yards of cloth were handed over to the presiding officer, the late Alex Fergusson MSP, along with leaders from the four main parties.

All 129 MSPs were also given a tie or scarf which most chose to wear at First Minister’s Questions that afternoon. The symbolism on display across the Holyrood debating chamber was very clear: Scotland was now united in welcoming Pope Benedict XVI.

Memorably, the pope himself donned the papal plaid while being driven through the streets of Edinburgh, thus prompting the headline in The Scottish Sun: Our Father in Tartan Heaven.

Ultimately, though, it was the power of prayer and divine providence ‘wot won it’ for the 2010 Papal Visit to the United Kingdom. That coupled with the arrival of Pope Benedict himself.

“So as to why things changed, I would say the reason was simply his presence,” said Pope Benedict’s private secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, when asked about the UK visit in an interview with the German Catholic newspaper Die Tagespost this week.

“That is, it was just his humble personality, which nevertheless has a certain charisma to it. And it comes as no surprise that with him as Pope, as universal pastor of the Catholic Church, he clearly managed to captivate a whole lot of people.”

Pope Benedict XVI, requiescat in pace.

David Kerr is the Director of Communications for the Diocese of Lansing in Michigan.

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