Many will remain angry and aggrieved after Pope Benedict's visit to Britain, just as many will continue to ask why a country with an established Protestant church in this secular age was hosting a four-day state visit by the head of the Roman Catholic Church at all. We ask that question ourselves. But there will be many, too – mostly, but not exclusively, British Catholics – who will have found consolation and encouragement in the pastoral aspects of his stay, which, after all, constituted by far the largest part.
As a whole, this highly contested visit passed off better, even much better, than might have been expected. This was thanks in part to the scheduling and the smooth functioning of the arrangements, areas in which official Britain knows its stuff and usually excels. It was also thanks to the orderly protests that gave the critics a voice. But it was thanks, in much larger part, to what the Pope said and how he said it. While lacking the charisma of his predecessor, Benedict showed he has a warmer, more human and less rigid side than comes across at a distance. His decision to make his public statements and give his homilies in English was a help here, as he was able to speak directly to his audience.
There was disappointment in some quarters that he did not apologise directly for what some see as his personal responsibility for the Church's cover-up of child abuse. He did, however, go further than he has in any public utterances to accept and apologise for the shame that paedophile priests had brought on the Church and described the abuse as a "crime". He also met some of the victims, as he has done in other countries he has visited. That itself is a form of penance.
There were times over the four days when the awkwardness of today's Britain was exposed in the face of religion in general and Catholicism in particular. The mainstream media veered uneasily from extreme deference to extreme hostility, while offering blanket coverage. But there were times, too, when the Pope's words indisputably struck a chord.
In his attacks on "aggressive secularism", in his insistence on the worth and dignity of everyone, including the very old and disabled, and in his warnings against the pursuit of material success and celebrity above all else, he reflected the misgivings of many Britons about their own country – believers and non-believers alike. And for all his hints that too much tolerance risked banishing religion to the margins, he may have left Britain just a little more broad-minded than he found it.