Among his other claims to greatness, Blessed John Henry Newman preached the most eloquent and prophetic sermons in English history. In his 1873 sermon "The Infidelity of the Future", he depicted with uncanny prescience the spiritual condition of today's Britain. He warned that faith would be marginalised: "Christianity has never yet had experience of a world simply irreligious." He foresaw that "you will find, certainly in the future, nay more, even now, even now, that the writers and thinkers of the day do not even believe there is a God". He predicted the decline of the Protestant churches which had shielded the Catholics. And he warned that "the thinking, speaking and acting England" would turn on the Catholics as "the enemies, as will be thought, of civil liberty and of national progress". Newman even had a premonition of the damage that scandal could do to the Church in an age of mass media: "With a whole population able to read, with cheap newspapers day by day conveying the news...it is plain that we are at the mercy of even one unworthy member or false brother."
All this has come, or is coming, to pass. Newman's dire prophecy provides the background to the unprecedented agitation that surrounded last month's papal visit to Britain. Seen from afar, the British seemed to have taken leave of their proverbial sense of humour and proportion. The historian David Starkey stigmatised not only Newman but six million of his countrymen when he told the BBC: "I think it's very difficult to be authentically English and Catholic." In Benedict's native Germany, there was dismay at this "mood of hatred and aggression"; Cardinal Kasper compared Britain to "a third-world country". He was left behind to nurse his gout.
Yet when the Pope arrived in Scotland to be greeted by the Queen, this ugly mood dissipated almost immediately. Not only was there a palpable warmth and lively curiosity in the welcome he received: all but the most inhumane of the humanist camp felt abashed. On the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, the Pope praised the British for defeating the heathens of Nazi Germany, thereby turning the tables on his atheist critics. Against the odds, the papal visit was a success: not bad for a third-world country.
So when the Pope gave his address in Westminster Hall to Newman's "thinking, speaking and acting England", there was something in the air. The echo of a remote past, symbolised by the medieval surroundings, prompted the stirrings of a new openness to persuasion. As Benedict set out the need for faith to "purify" the moral foundations of politics, quietly explaining that religion was not a problem but a vital contributor to the national conversation, there were murmurs of assent. Indeed, David Cameron took up the theme of the national conversation in his farewell speech to the Pope, insisting that Britain would not succumb to exclusive secularism on his watch.