Around midday on Friday 17 September, Pope Benedict XVI addressed approximately 100 laypeople and religious leaders, representing Britain’s non-Christian faith communities, including Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains.
It was a colourful affair, with Catholic bishops, archbishops and cardinals in full dress sitting alongside white-robed swamis and yellow-cloaked Zen masters who mingled happily among the darker suits of rabbis, imams and turbaned Sikhs. Among this wonderful mosaic of religious dress there was not a secularist in sight.
And, in the absence of secularists, the Pope clearly felt among friends. Introduced by the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, the Pope listened as the Vatican was commended for its contribution to interfaith understanding. According to the Chief Rabbi, “today is a celebration of difference”. The Pope listened carefully and nodded.
A Muslim leader, Dr Khalid Assam, followed and talked about how faith binds creation together. Again, the Pope looked pleased.
So far, so good! It was his turn. He walked to the lectern, appearing tired, like an elderly shepherd, and spoke in a low voice. We all strained to listen.
His words were familiar to people of faith. He was in his comfort zone. No need to condemn secularism here.
Beginning with a discussion on the meaning of life, he depicted God in search of humanity, as much as human beings are in search of God. Our duty as men and women of faith is to live peaceably together and jointly steward God’s creation, he said.
In his only mention of Vatican II, he said that the Catholic Church placed a high value on dialogue with other faiths. In turn, the Church expected reciprocity, notably freedom of worship and practice in all countries. The remark was directed at Muslim countries that deny Christians the right to worship or to build churches, and other citizens the right to convert to Christianity.
This was the only point of potential controversy, though in my conversation with Muslims present it was not mentioned.
The Pope completed his short address by calling for face-to-face dialogue, where faiths face one another, creating a shared, but inward-looking bond. He also called for side-by-side dialogue, where faiths stand together but face outwards, unified in a common task.
In these words, he echoed the writings of the Chief Rabbi, focusing not on condemning secularism, but on respect and the need for all faiths to work together.
How he envisaged this happening, he left to another day and probably, I suspect, to another pope.
Dr Edward Kessler is executive director of the Woolf Institute, Cambridge, where he studies relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims. He is contributing a series of posts on interfaith issues raised by the papal visit.