Benedict bites back: How the Pope tried to stem the tide of criticism

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He stepped off the plane on Thursday, straight into a row over paedophile priests and carping over public funding of his four-day state visit. Joanna Moorhead, who travelled with him throughout

As "Shepherd One" took off into the skies above Rome earlier this week, with Pope Benedict XVI aboard, the mood on board would have surprised many people in Britain.

Because, while the view in the country to which he was heading was that the first papal state visit would either be a lacklustre damp squib or a PR disaster, the Pope's entourage were bullishly confident that the tide would turn.

"You wait and see," one of his advisers told me, as the plane cruised over Europe. "I've been on lots and lots of papal visits, to lots and lots of different countries. Whatever the controversy before he arrives, once we hit the ground things change – and fast."

Back then, on Thursday morning, it seemed a tall order to imagine how that adviser could possibly be right. How could Benedict hope to turn things around? His pontificate was reeling from yet more revelations over the extent of the sex abuse scandal (this time, in Belgium), and large elements of the British public – even those who weren't heavily opposed to the visit – were questioning why the UK taxpayer was having to spend £10m-£12m, at a time when we're all being asked to brace ourselves for the heaviest cuts any of us can remember. Added to which, the former Cardinal Ratzinger's reputation as the Vatican's rottweiler has never quite gone away. And then there's the fact that, coming after possibly the most charismatic man ever to sit on the throne of St Peter, Benedict was hardly Fr Personality. In some ways, in fact, he's an ecclesiastical Gordon Brown – a superb number two whose talents just weren't suited to the top job.

But as he prepares to return to Rome this evening, after he beatifies his long-time hero Cardinal John Henry Newman in Birmingham today, you could at least make a case for saying he's emerged from this trip looking statesman-like, looking successful and – most unlikely of all – looking popular.

So, how did just four days make such a difference? And why did that Vatican insider have his finger on the pulse, despite not knowing much about Britain? After all, most of the trips he's accompanied Benedict on have been to Catholic countries. Coming to Britain was a bit like forcing a bunch of hard-living 20-somethings to have a distant and slightly tetchy elderly cousin to stay. In so many ways we didn't think we wanted him; we thought he'd cramp our style, grumble at the way we lived, and insist on us turning the music down when he turned in ridiculously early. And the funny thing is that, even though Benedict was all those things (he went to bed so early on Friday that he missed a state banquet held in his honour), to our surprise we had to grudgingly admit that even a distant tie means something; and Britain's history with the Holy See does go back a long way, even if we've managed to do what so many families do, and let a fallout fester for far too long (almost 500 years, in our case).

One thing we hadn't bargained for was realising that there is a link with Rome, even for people who aren't Catholics and in spite of the fact that Catholics are a small minority, and that the majority of the population here don't attend regular worship of any kind. Another thing we hadn't realised was the power of the Pope's on-the-ground operation. The Vatican might drop PR clangers on a regular basis – Cardinal Kasper's eve-of-visit remarks on Britain's "third world" status being the latest example – but don't be fooled: there's nothing amateurish about most of the Vatican operation. When the Pope swings into town, he brings with him a group of officials and advisers who work a country like they'd work a room – homing in on the people who matter, talking man-to-man (and it usually is man to man, because they're all male and they tend to seek out others like themselves) in a language they understand, even if some of the sentiments are hard to swallow.

The slickness of the Vatican's diplomatic operation comes with a confidence that breeds success – and it's a confidence that springs from the Holy See's extraordinary standing in Italy. In the two days I spent in Rome at the start of this week, getting my accreditation to become a temporary member of the Vamp (Vatican Accredited Member of the Press), I was struck by how different a force the Catholic church is in Italy from its standing in the UK. Here, it's seen as a country cousin – gauche and off-message – while in Italy, and especially in Vatican-dominated Rome, the situation could hardly be more different. There, the church is the sharpest operator around – if it clicks its fingers, Rome dances to its tune. And that power brings with it expectations that can't fail to impress when it comes calling in London, in its Prada suits, sexy shades and – on the feet of the chairman of the board himself – its bright red Gucci loafers.

If there were worries in Rome about whether the Catholic personnel on the ground were up to the job of organising a papal visit (and there were), then those were swept away from the moment the Popemobile glided in. Because where Benedict goes, his hot-shot cardinals go too, smoothing his path every step of the way. At every one of the events I attended this week, I noticed, as we awaited the arrival of the pontiff, the swoop of high-level Vatican brass (under the leadership of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone). On Friday morning, for example, in the chapel at St Mary's College in Twickenham, a five-strong team descended like a clerically dressed branch of the SAS. Before a congregation of 300 Catholic personnel from England and Wales – including at least one home-grown cardinal and countless bishops, priests, monks and nuns – the purple-clad corps carried out a series of checks that left nothing to chance. One sat on the papal throne, to check it for comfort and height; another checked the microphone; a third engaged the MC in a quiet conversation about how events would unfold when the Pope arrived. Only once they were satisfied that things would go like clockwork did the team leave the altar, and the Pope duly arrive.

But the slickness of the Vatican's press operation is only part of the success story: for a papal visit to work, the faithful (or at least, those who are vaguely favourable towards the Pope) have to come out for him. They have to wave from the pavements as he drives past; they have to turn out, sometimes at a ridiculously early time in the morning even though he's not due until 5pm that afternoon, in some far-flung field or park, to cheer and whoop when he arrives, to pass their babies up to be blessed by him through the window of the Popemobile, and to sing lustily their hymns.

The feeling a week ago was that this wouldn't happen; that this Pope couldn't command a crowd as John Paul II could, that most people (except protesters) didn't care whether or not a pontiff would be around, and public support would be embarrassingly thin.

In fact what did happen was that, as the week went on, the crowds strengthened. On Thursday, driving along the Pope's route ahead of him, I was struck by the fact that a fair few people had turned out to stand outside their houses in Edinburgh as we drove from the airport to the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

But it was a sunny morning and a lot of them were schoolkids standing outside their schools – it wouldn't necessarily last.

And yet it didn't only last, it grew; by Friday afternoon, Victoria Street was lined, six or eight deep, for the route the Pope would travel from Westminster Hall, where he had been addressing Britain's movers and shakers. Inside we'd seen the likes of Tony and Cherie Blair, Gordon Brown, Lady Thatcher and Sir John and Lady Major. Now, on the streets, we were suddenly seeing great swaths of ordinary humanity, the real litmus-test of the popularity of a public figure. Sure, not all of them had come to pay homage, but walking the length of Victoria Street, most of the people I saw were clearly papal supporters – and if a relatively small but noisy group of protesters managed to position themselves slap-bang opposite the entrance to the abbey (as they did), then that was clever but – all the same – not typical of the crowd as a whole.

And there were small, but hugely significant, stories of individual devotion – like the woman who was allowed to meet the Pope at the Nunciature in Wimbledon, where he was staying, after she spent an hour at the gates with her children. In fact, a friend of mine, Catholic to her core, took all six of her children, including a newborn baby, to stand at those same gates at 10.30pm when he arrived from Heathrow on Thursday night. "It's not just the Pope," she said. "More than that it's about the papacy, about supporting it and standing up for it and what it means."

What's surprising, in these times when being a believer has never been less cool, is that people still exist who care quite this much.

As my friend said, though, they care about the church as well as caring about Benedict himself. And therein lies another key to why this week has been the surprise success it has been – which is that it's not just been about him at all. Lots of it, in fact, has been about the Catholic church in Britain – a slightly strange animal, cut off from both its Roman centre and from its fellow Brits. The Catholic church in England and Wales, and in Scotland, has a flavour all of its own, different from the Catholicism of dyed-in-the-wool Catholic nations such as Spain and Mexico and – of course – Italy; nothing like as slick and organised and professional, but immensely big-hearted and, actually, terribly modest. Catholics do all sorts of good works, quietly and without anyone ever noticing, any day of the week. Recently I spent a day with a nurse and mother of four who uses almost all her spare time to run a fellowship centre for foreign sailors when they sail into her local port in south Wales. It's not work that anyone praises her for; she does it because her Catholicism inspires a sense of wanting to give something back. And, while all sorts of people of all faiths and none give things back, the Catholic community certainly does its fair share. This week was a chance to celebrate that, and to celebrate its high points, such as its exemplary education system, which does deliver plenty in the way of success.

What, though, of the toughest factor in the mix? What of Benedict himself? Benedict is a character who doesn't come across well in public – but who in private is said to be personable and charming. Watching him closely this week, I've been aware – time after time – of how extraordinarily unadept he is at delivering a speech. This week's speeches were actually quite meaty, and he shared some interesting thoughts. For example, there was his insistence that political and economic policies need, crucially, a moral underpinning if they are to work; and his plea for greater tolerance for Christians in nations such as our own, which play lip-service to tolerance and yet fail to tolerate Christianity.

Time after time this week, I watched as his secretary "Gorgeous" Georg Ganswein (who incidentally isn't as drop-dead gorgeous in the flesh as some of the tabloids would have us believe), handed him what, on paper, was a good speech ... only to groan inwardly as he once again managed to crucify it in its delivery. TV crews in the Vamp moaned endlessly about how tough it is for them to get a "soundbite" from Benedict's speeches; almost all of them this week were delivered with hardly any tonal inflection, with no drama or passion, and often without even any eye-contact with his audience. On one occasion – at St Mary's in Twickenham – he even spoke the words "looking around me today", while keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the paper in front of him. When he mentioned in that same speech that he had been taught as a boy by members of a religious order called the Institute of the Blessed Virgin, and his remark that he owed the "English ladies" a debt of gratitude brought titters from the crowd, he sailed on regardless, totally failing to acknowledge that rarest of events for him – a bit of audience reaction.

The upside of being this hopeless a public performer – and this is something Benedict should milk more often – is that when he does do something spontaneous, he's met with delight. At the Big Assembly, attended by thousands of school children and beamed into Catholic schools around the country, he unexpectedly put both arms into the air at one point and waved them enthusiastically; the crowd went ballistic. Similarly the front-page pictures of him bending out of the Popemobile to kiss a baby took us right back to John Paul. But it was only for a fleeting second and, as if to emphasise how unlike his predecessor he is, John Paul's name, and countless eulogies to him, came up time and again through the course of this visit. Benedict even joined in, referring to his "beloved" John Paul, and you can imagine he must hark back to the glory days when he was doing a job he loved (Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) and his great friend John Paul was doing a job he loved, too – and they complemented and supported one another.

But things have changed. John Paul has gone, and the number two who was never ideal to be number one is making a go of it. He looks awkward; he still smiles his tight little smile instead of the genuine, lighting-up-the-face smile we saw so often on the Pole. But what we saw this week was that he's doing the best that he can.

A little bit of humility helps. At Westminster Abbey, for example, Benedict described himself as "a pilgrim from Rome", and then yesterday morning, at Westminster Cathedral, he did what he really had to do to give this trip a chance of being a success: he apologised for the child abuse perpetrated by his church's priests over many years. He did so profusely: "I express my deep sorrow to the innocent victims of these unspeakable crimes, along with my hope that the power of Christ's grace ... will bring deep healing and peace to their lives," he said. And he acknowledged "the shame and humiliation which all of us have suffered because of these sins".

And with this, something in the British psyche – the part that likes underdogs and favours people who've had a bad press and yet seem to be trying their damndest to get it a bit right – warmed to him, even if they didn't quite take him to their hearts.

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