About an hour into the papal vigil in Hyde Park, I turned to one of my companions, a musical genius with bipolar disorder, and said, “You know what I think?  I think this is pagan.”  No doubt my sour reaction to the singing and dancing and picnicking—to all that amplified noise, to the happiness on the faces of little children—was the product of nothing more serious than a clapped-out liver.  Whatever the case, however, I did not like the vigil, and it so colored my view of the Holy Father’s visit that I now find it hard to think of those four days of comfort and joy without occasionally yielding to cynicism and despair.

Much has been written about the bright-eyed faith of the young pilgrims in the park, and indeed at all the other papal venues, and rightly so.  You could scarcely move at the vigil for all the love and goodwill.  All I saw, however, was smiley-face Catholicism; EWTN Catholicism; Facebook Catholicism; clean and sober and good to go.  To these youngsters everything was incredible, fantastic, amazing, overwhelming, unbelievable.  The older pilgrims were almost as bad.  By bad, of course, I do not mean bad.  Most of these people, young and old, were good, holy, orthodox, kind, and selfless.  I saw only one openly dissident pilgrim, a middle-aged man whose T-shirt carried the following instruction to the Holy Father: “Pope Benedict: ordain women now.”  Nobody took his eyes out.

It wasn’t all music and mime, of course.  Between the sets we were given supposedly wholesome messages in the form of prerecorded “testimonies” shown on huge screens dotted about the arena.  Here was a pretty woman from Malawi.  Her name was Ethel Singo, and she described herself as an asylum-seeker.  “Last year,” she said, “we were arrested in a dawn raid and taken to a detention center, where my children suffered terribly.  We hope that the Church will join the many voices against the inhumane treatment of children in immigration removal centers.”  I winced; perhaps I snarled.  At any rate my wife shot me a warning look.  Don’t start.  Just don’t.

Very well, my dear.  But please.  You cannot enforce immigration laws without detention centers, and if you feel compelled to take your children to live in a foreign country, you can’t expect everything to go smoothly.  Even a visit to Disneyland can be accompanied by anger, remorse, tantrums, knife-fights.  As it happens, I have a low opinion of immigration officers, no matter whose side they are on, and of course the Church must speak out against the inhumane treatment of children wherever it occurs.  To be true to Her calling, the Church must have the courage to defy Glenn Beck and promote social justice.  But there is a season for everything.  In the middle of a state visit by the Pope, at a time when churchmen are being accused of unspeakable crimes against children, the Church ought not to associate Herself in public with a woman who is charging the British state with cruelty to children.  I was not, quite, the only one to take a negative view of the proceedings.  Without the Pope and benediction, said the novelist Piers Paul Read, “the vigil would have seemed like a political rally of well-meaning leftists.”

The Pope’s arrival changed everything.  Now “Tantum Ergo” replaced “I Say A Little Prayer For You.”  It was, as the kids say, awesome.  During adoration and benediction some 80,000 people knelt or bowed their heads in silence.  All you could hear was the clatter of police helicopters and the occasional whimper of a baby.  It was magnificent.  The question now is: Will this magnificence, and the magnificence of the other events—not least, of course, the beatification of John Henry Newman in Birmingham—make a lasting impression?  One hopes so, but it is too early to talk of a “Benedict bounce.”  No doubt hundreds of thousands of Catholics were inspired, comforted, and strengthened by the Holy Father’s presence in this country, and by what he said, but I neither see nor sense any change among our rulers, and very little among our bishops.  (In fairness to Archbishop Vincent Nicholas, head of the Church in England and Wales, however, he did issue a pastoral letter after the visit, in which he urged us to be more open in our Catholicism by, for example, making the Sign of the Cross in public and by saying “God bless you” more often.)

Perhaps some of the lower clergy will be more bullish.  I hope so, because the Holy Father sent out one very clear signal during the Masses he celebrated here: At each of them he gave communion on the tongue to people who were kneeling.  How many noticed?  Very few, I’d say.  The week after the visit I dropped in to Westminster Cathedral to see if I could find a priest willing to absolve me of all the sins against charity I had committed while the Pope was here.  The place was packed with worshipers for a sung Mass.  As I walked down a side aisle, Communion was being distributed, and all the communicants I saw (before I placed my eyes in custody) received in the hand, as usual.  If these people were at some point in the future to keep their hands to themselves, then Benedict would have achieved a very big bounce.

When it comes to what is called “the life of the nation,” meanwhile, talk of bounce is surely wishful thinking.  (Was there a Benedict bounce in the United States two years ago?  Well, you elected Barack Obama . . . )  The British are indifferent to religion, which is why the Protest the Pope crowd failed so dismally in their efforts to disrupt the visit.  I love my people, but it sometimes seems that all they really care about is TV, sex, booze, soccer, and curry.  It is true that David Cameron spoke warmly of the Pope, but his words were just feel-good.  He has more in common with Maureen Dowd than with the Vicar of Christ, as do most Conservatives.  He and they are for abortion, for embryonic-stem-cell research, for “gay marriage,” and (naturally) for contraception.  The prime minister is not (as he might put it) living in the Dark Ages.

But British indifference does not mean that there was no nastiness before and during the Pope’s visit.  Of course there was.  That’s what you get in a liberal democracy.  Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens (I recommend a prayer to Dorothy Day in his case), Polly Toynbee, and the militant gay activist Peter Tatchell all did hit jobs, Tatchell at the rate of about one per day.  The rock chick Julie Burchill said the real reason the Church was against abortion was that She needed a reliable supply of young children to feed the lusts of pervert priests.  (Julie is now in her 50’s, and she can’t do the abuse as inventively as she once could.)

All the same, and in spite of the pedophile-priests story that has been running all year, the Pope’s visit was an outstanding success.  Far from being hostile, the BBC coverage of the first state visit by a reigning pontiff to Britain was generous and respectful.  Even unfriendly newspapers accepted that they had misjudged the mood.  All this evidently made a big impression on Benedict, who, when he returned to Rome, declared that in Britain “the Christian heritage is still strong and ever active at every level of social life.”  If you say so, Holy Father.  Still, while he was here, the Pope was rather more nuanced and, for example, reminded politicians that there was more to moral principles than social consensus.  In his address to the bishops at Oscott seminary, furthermore, he spoke of the Church’s political and social responsibilities:

As you proclaim the coming of the Kingdom, with its promise of hope for the poor and the needy, the sick and the elderly, the unborn and the neglected, be sure to present in its fullness the life-giving message of the Gospel, including those elements which call into question the widespread assumptions of today’s culture.

But perhaps his greatest moment came when he spoke to schoolchildren in the London suburb of Twickenham and challenged them to become saints.  “Being highly skilled in some activity or profession is good,” he said,

but it will not satisfy us unless we aim for something greater still.  It might make us famous, but it will not make us happy.  Happiness is something we all want, but one of the great tragedies in this world is that so many people never find it, because they look for it in the wrong places.  The key to it is very simple—true happiness is to be found in God.  We need to have the courage to place our deepest hopes in God alone, not in money, in a career, in worldly success, or in our relationships with others, but in God.  Only he can satisfy the deepest needs of our hearts.

“The deepest needs of our hearts.”  Cor ad cor loquitur, Heart Speaks Unto Heart, was Newman’s motto and the theme of the Pope’s visit.  Here Benedict XVI spoke to the hearts of schoolchildren, but also to all of us, even seniors.

That’s bounce enough for me.