Over the weekend I was glued to the television coverage of the Pope's visit, most of the time with a huge smile on my face, and often with tears in my eyes. I loved practically every word he said, but I think my favourite part of the whole visit (and there's quite a bit of competition for that title...) was the recognition that was given to Britain's own native saints, who are so often forgotten by modern Catholics. In my experience few Catholics know anything about the saints of these very islands - in my own Catholic education I heard a lot about Thérèse of Lisieux and St Bernadette, but nothing about Margaret of Scotland. The English saints one does hear about are the martyrs of the Reformation, which tends to give the impression that Catholicism in Britain is, and always has been, a persecuted minority religion.
If this is true of Catholics it's even more true of the wider population, and in consequence there is often the impression abroad (and this was very evident from some media criticism of last week's visit) that Catholicism is a foreign religion, alien to Britain and opposed to what is 'really British'. I read one newspaper article last week which talked gaily about how English identity was fundamentally shaped in opposition to the Catholic Church, a state forged by defining itself as defiantly Protestant and deeply anti-Catholic - and so it has remained "through all four centuries" since, the journalist said, as if that's a long time in the 1500-year history of this country. I think this argument, though it has some truth, would have been a surprise to Alfred the Great.
This lacuna of knowledge concerns me as a Catholic but it concerns me much more as a medievalist, because the myth of "foundationally" Protestant England cuts us off, as a nation, from our entire medieval heritage. Medieval England is Catholic England, and ignorance of that fact - often wilful ignorance, it seems to me - deceives us about our own history.
The Pope's visit, by contrast, brought forth a proliferation of reminders that England has a long, rich, foundational Catholic heritage. It began with a parade on St Ninian's day (even I hadn't heard of him!) and with references to Margaret of Scotland, St Columba, Bede and Aidan. Then the Pope said this at the Beatification of Cardinal Newman:
"England has a long tradition of martyr saints, whose courageous witness has sustained and inspired the Catholic community here for centuries. Yet it is right and fitting that we should recognize today the holiness of a confessor, a son of this nation who, while not called to shed his blood for the Lord, nevertheless bore eloquent witness to him in the course of a long life devoted to the priestly ministry, and especially to preaching, teaching, and writing. He is worthy to take his place in a long line of saints and scholars from these islands, Saint Bede, Saint Hilda, Saint Aelred, Blessed Duns Scotus, to name but a few. In Blessed John Henry, that tradition of gentle scholarship, deep human wisdom and profound love for the Lord has borne rich fruit, as a sign of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit deep within the heart of God’s people, bringing forth abundant gifts of holiness."
I was so pleased to hear him name St Hilda! Just to hear her publically ranked, as she deserves to be, among great "saints and scholars", was very exciting, and a corrective, I hope, to lazy arguments about the Church's hatred of women. But my favourite moment along these lines was Friday evening's ecumenical prayer service in Westminster Abbey. There the Pope said in his address:
"I thank the Lord for allowing me, as the Successor of Saint Peter in the See of Rome, to make this pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint Edward the Confessor. Edward, King of England, remains a model of Christian witness and an example of that true grandeur to which the Lord summons his disciples in the Scriptures we have just heard: the grandeur of a humility and obedience grounded in Christ’s own example (cf. Phil 2:6-8), the grandeur of a fidelity which does not hesitate to embrace the mystery of the Cross out of undying love for the divine Master and unfailing hope in his promises (cf. Mk 10:43-44)."
He and the Archbishop of Canterbury went on to pray at the shrine of St Edward, who had Westminster Abbey built and consecrated only a week before his death. Edward is, as I have said before, one of my favourite saints, not only a pious and holy man but a deeply sympathetic one, a model of virtue in the face of great personal suffering. Many people have discussed how moving it was to see the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury - successors of Gregory and Augustine, whose initiative first evangelised the English peoples - kneel together in prayer before Edward's shrine. It has been called a historic moment in relations between the Anglican and Catholic churches. The Archbishop, in speaking about Newman's conversation, described the two churches as separated friends. Well, Edward the Confessor is the patron saint of separated spouses: I hope the consequence of their prayers at his shrine might be to bring those who are separated together again.
Edward the Confessor in stained glass at Wells Cathedral.