Madeleine Teahan is Associate Editor of the Catholic Herald.
In June 1969 a man drove through the streets of Bradford. His wife had left him and he was driving to his death. The traffic lights turned red. As he paused and glared at the summer sun, soaking in despair, the music floating through the wide-open windows of the local school enveloped him:
Love Divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven, to earth come down. Fix in us thy humble dwelling, all thy faithful mercies crown.
Jesus, thou art all compassion, pure unbounded love thou art. Visit us with thy salvation, enter every trembling heart.
The following week, the children of St Joseph’s College, Bradford, assembled again and their headmistress read them a letter of thanks she had received that morning. A man, who had paused outside their school the week before during their morning assembly, had written it. He wrote that he would have been dead by now but their voices raised in praise- “Jesus thou art all compassion. Pure unbounded love thou art”- had touched his heart and had saved him from despair.
41 years later, I too sang those uplifting words as I stood in Hyde Park waiting for Pope Benedict. I knew my mother was also standing somewhere among the tens of thousands and I remembered the story she told me as a child, about the desperate man and his letter of gratitude which astonished her and her peers and remained engraved in her memory.
I would always associate that hymn with motherly reassurance and child-like trust in God. But on the brink of turning 23 on that September evening, I had grown more aware than ever that faith was not a mere comfort blanket to numb the hardships of life, always securing a “happy ending.”
Waiting for this “controversial” Pope to appear, his visit so far had reinforced that the face of the wider world was not comprised of innocents with angelic voices. The weary human heart was prone to doubt and trepidation.
But Pope Benedict’s calm courage made him the loving father who encouraged his children simply through his own example. He spoke with a tender honesty that evening in Hyde Park about the realities of living one’s faith: “In our own time, the price to be paid for the fidelity to the Gospel is no longer being hanged, drawn and quartered but it often involves being dismissed out of hand, ridiculed or parodied. And yet, the Church cannot withdraw from the task of proclaiming Christ and his Gospel as saving truth, the source of our ultimate happiness as individuals and as the fountain of a just and humane society.”
With particular attention to the youth of the Church he implored us: “Dear young friends: only Jesus knows what “definite service” he has in mind for you. Be open to his voice resounding in the depths of your heart: even now his heart is speaking to your heart.”
Born into a Church while John Paul II was its Pope, I was blessed. I was bereft on hearing the news of his death while studying for my A Levels. But Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate provided a sturdy bridge, over tumultuous waters, enabling me to continue my journey of faith into the first stage of adult life. Many of us still feel petrified, pause or give up altogether along the way. But Pope Benedict will remain for many, the Holy Father who emboldened the children of the Church to keep walking while daring to meet the gaze of the passer-by.
We thank God for him.