On the Scene

Cardinal Egan gives firsthand report on papal trip to Britain


There just might have been a bit of New York inspiration behind one of the homilies Pope Benedict XVI delivered in Great Britain last month. Cardinal Egan, who traveled to England for the papal visit, told the story to CNY.

When the pope celebrated Mass in Westminster Cathedral, the cardinal said, “he built his sermon on the architecture of the church.” That’s exactly what Pope Benedict did when he celebrated Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral during his visit in April 2008. Cardinal Egan was archbishop of New York at the time.

“I like to think that he got his ideas in St. Patrick’s for this very beautiful Mass,” the cardinal said.

Cardinal Egan was one of several cardinals from outside England invited by the host dioceses to participate in the papal visit to the United Kingdom. In an interview, he noted that the pope’s New York visit was pastoral, while the U.K. journey was a state visit; the pope had been invited by Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister David Cameron as well as Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster. The Holy Father therefore participated in formal meetings with civic officials and other dignitaries.

The pope loved greeting the crowds who turned out to see him, the cardinal said. He also remarked on the beauty of the liturgical services that the pope celebrated.

“You could see he was thoroughly enjoying the beatification” of Cardinal John Henry Newman, Cardinal Egan said. The event took place Sept. 19 in Birmingham.

The cardinal also remarked that the weather was beautiful throughout the visit, and he compared the cloud formations during the outdoor events to the work of the renowned English painter J.M.W. Turner.

The only dark cloud was the press coverage and commentary before the pope’s arrival. The cardinal brought home a sampling from the British press; many articles were bitterly critical of the pope and the Catholic Church, with scurrilous remarks about the pope. Some writers called for the visit to be canceled; some predicted that few would turn out to welcome the pope.

Cardinal Egan and his priest-secretary, Father Brendan Fitzgerald, landed in England the day before the pope did.

“When we arrived,” the cardinal said, “I have to say I was ashamed for the British media. What they were writing was unworthy of any civilized people.”

By the time the pope left, the tone had changed “from meanness to admiration,” the cardinal said.

“I won’t say that they were completely sold, but all of the ugliness was over,” he said. “His presence somehow tamed them.”

The opinions in the media obviously did not reflect the attitudes of all Britons, and certainly not those of religious leaders. Cardinal Egan said that Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury “could not have been more warm and friendly.”

“Every one of the Anglicans we met were 100 percent positive,” and all clergy treated the Catholic guests “like old friends,” he said. So did lay men and women. Cardinal Egan said that as he and Father Fitzgerald walked through the airport terminal after arriving, three young men called out, “Fathers, welcome! Are you here for the papal visit?”

Cardinal Egan was a member of the original Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue in the United States following the Second Vatican Council, and also participated in talks in England. Discussing the significance of the beatification of Cardinal Newman, he remarked that Blessed Newman is one of England’s great writers and intellectuals “both as an Anglican and as a Roman Catholic.” His works are still “monuments of English style” and part of England’s literature, he said.

“He is said by many to have been very much a part of Vatican II,” the cardinal added, because his writings influenced the council’s work, on two issues in particular: “the development of doctrine and the importance of the Fathers of the Church to validate the authenticity of the Catholic Church.”

He added that Pope Benedict has always considered Blessed Newman “to be one of his favorite theologians and writers,” the cardinal said.

Cardinal Egan also said that the beatification has “immense significance” in New York—and beyond—because of the Newman Clubs through which the Church has ministered for many years to Catholic students in secular universities and colleges.

Blessed Newman, the cardinal said, provides inspiration especially to “academics, intellectuals, historians, theologian and students of English style” in literature and writing.

The beatification took place in Birmingham, where Blessed Newman established a religious community, the Birmingham Oratory of St. Philip Neri. An oratory is a small community of priests who serve in the area where they are located. The first oratory was established by St. Philip Neri in Rome.

There’s a bit of a connection here, too, that brings Blessed Newman closer to New Yorkers. Cardinal Egan founded an oratory in the New York Archdiocese, at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart parish in Tappan. It is under the direction of the pastor, Father George Torok, C.O. (The initials stand for Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri.)

The feast of Blessed Newman is Oct. 9, the day he was received into the Catholic Church in 1845.