Telegraph: Pope Benedict XVI has left us with a great legacy on which to build
Exactly one year after leading the largest UK Ministerial delegation to the Holy See, Sayeeda Warsi reflects on the Papacy of Pope Benedict XVI
By Baroness Warsi
A year ago today, I led the UK’s largest ever ministerial delegation to the Holy See. There is one moment of that trip which I recall particularly vividly: when six fellow ministers and I nervously assembled in Pope Benedict’s audience chamber in the Vatican, awaiting his arrival. The Holy Father seldom grants private audiences except to heads of state or government, and each of us sensed the importance of meeting the man who is the spiritual leader of more than a billion people and an inspiration to many more.
When the Holy Father entered the room, wearing his trademark bright red shoes, we were put at ease. The 84-year-old Pontiff greeted the party in turn. “Excellency!” he exclaimed when he saw another member of our group, the Archbishop of Westminster. Pope Benedict accepted our gifts – a King James Bible from the Prime Minister and an illustrated Quran from me – with grace. It was during the few private words I had with him that he urged me to continue making the case for faith in society.
That very special day followed my speech to the students of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, during which I argued against militant secularisation and urged Europe to be confident in its Christian identity. There were several bilaterals between our ministers and their opposite numbers, and we left with a series of agreements, from climate change to the Arab Spring. The Holy See kindly hosted our delegation at the Casa di Santa Marta, the rooms where Cardinals will soon be staying during the Conclave as they decide upon the next pope, following the Holy Father’s sad but courageous decision to step down.
Last February’s delegation – following the Pope’s hugely successful UK visit in 2010 – has been cited as an important moment in his Pontificate for our country. It marked 30 years since full diplomatic relations were restored between the UK and the Holy See and despite the very long break in those ties, it remains our oldest diplomatic relationship, dating back to 1479. Many have argued that the United Kingdom and the Holy See have never enjoyed a stronger bond than under Pope Benedict.
For me, this relationship with the UK is just one example of the Holy Father’s desire to reach out to people: those from other countries and those of other faiths. It was at an interfaith event in Twickenham, back in 2010, when I first had the honour of meeting him. During his eight-year Pontificate he has been devoted to building bridges between religions. A key moment, for me, was when he visited the Blue Mosque in Istanbul – the second ever papal visit to a Muslim place of worship. It is hard to overestimate the impact of his visits over the last year, to Cuba, to Mexico and most recently to Lebanon; or the significance of his decision to join Twitter and start tweeting in nine languages, including Latin and Arabic.
His decision to step down was, I’m sure, not taken lightly and would have been done so after much consideration and prayer. He seemed frail last year and his declining health must have been hard to bear given the weight of his duties. I understand he will now go into retreat but he has left us with a wealth of important scholarly teachings and a diplomatic legacy upon which we can only build.