LONDON – To the surprise of many in the media – at home and abroad – Pope Benedict XVI’s just completed visit to Britain was an outstanding success. As a Roman Catholic and as the person asked by Prime Minister David Cameron to supervise government arrangements for the visit, I was naturally delighted. But, I was also pleased from the point of view of a citizen, with a strong dislike of the herd mentality.
The media tends to move like market sentiment. One moment, the public square is full of bulls; the next you’re being clawed by bears. We were told before the visit that the British public would be at best indifferent and at worst hostile. Even some in the Vatican feared this outcome. But, from the moment that the Pope arrived in Scotland, he was overwhelmed by enthusiastic crowds of well-wishers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.
I drove in the papal cavalcade along the motorway from Edinburgh, where Benedict met Queen Elizabeth, to Glasgow, where he celebrated an open-air mass. All along the road were throngs of people. From the first day, the media understood that they had badly misread the public mood. The visit went from incipient disaster to huge success overnight. The public had poked a sharp stick into the eye of metropolitan cynicism and know-all journalism.
The message conveyed by the pope and by the religious leaders with whom he met defied the contemporary assumption that the public cannot understand anything longer or more complicated than a sound bite. The late American politician Adlai Stevenson once said that the average man (or woman) was a great deal better than average. Voters should be treated as equals, and politicians should not talk down to them.