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Page last updated at 13:37 GMT, Tuesday, 21 September 2010 14:37 UK
Faith communities look back on the Pope's visit

Joe Wilson
By Joe Wilson
BBC Radio Lancashire

Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury celebrate evening prayer at Westminster Abbey
Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury celebrate evening prayer at Westminster Abbey

Lancashire's faith communities have been assessing the impact of the Pope's visit to the UK and it seems the four day visit has been met within faith circles with almost universal approval.

It is hard to over-emphasize the importance of this visit to the Roman Catholic community. It was the spiritual highlight, not just of the year, but possibly of their lifetime.

To see the man elected to follow in the footsteps of St. Peter, the worldwide leader of their church, on British soil delivering his message of peace and togetherness was a moment which may never be repeated.

For me, the visit began a week before the papal plane known as "Shepherd One" touched down at Edinburgh airport shortly after ten on Thursday morning.

Yes, there had been meetings and discussions about how BBC Radio Lancashire would fit into the width and scope of the extensive BBC coverage but no matter how well prepared and briefed I was, there was still something pleasantly surprising about the intensity of support to be found in the Catholic congregations.

Massive crowd

I began to get a true sense of the emotional importance of the visit to Catholics as I met some of the younger pilgrims who were destined to be part of a massive crowd at Hyde Park for a prayer vigil at which the Pope was due to be the chief celebrant.

"It's a great opportunity as a Catholic young person to hear from the leader of our faith," 22-year-old Sarah Kane from Preston told me. "To get his guidance and to hear what he has to say about how we live and how we can live."

I met others too, like Sean McMahon from Lancaster who had seen the Pope before at a World Youth Day event in Cologne. He told me: "Being surrounded by a million young people from all over the world, from all different walks of life, all different backgrounds, all different cultures, it's an experience you hold close in your heart. It makes you realise how universal the church is."

The historic nature of the visit is well documented. Pope Benedict XVI was embarking on the first ever state visit by a pontiff.

It was a four day occasion, beginning on Thursday morning in Edinburgh, taking in Glasgow, Twickenham, London and eventually concluding in the West Midlands on Sunday afternoon.

As we woke on the Thursday morning to the first glimpses on television of an expectant Edinburgh it did not bode well. "I've seen bigger crowds for the January sales!" said BBC reporter Kay Adams looking down a modestly, some would say thinly, populated Princes Street.

Anne Marie Coppock
It was awesome
Anne Marie Coppock

It was minutes before the Pope arrived. This was the first morning of day one and the omens were that this would be long four days.

At the airport, the Duke of Edinburgh waited to offer the state's official hand. Prince Phillip was wrapped in a heavy coat to ward off the chill of a Scottish autumn, but for many it was the harsh winds of controversy that greeted the Pope.


A poll suggested many Catholics were worried about his leadership. There were still many worries about the church's response to child abuse allegations amongst the clergy. The church's attitude to homosexuality, its insistence on celibacy amongst the clergy and the lack of lead roles for women within the church were all roundly criticised.

The Pope was flying into the face of his critics and as the days wore on, almost against all odds; his supporters claim he appeared to dilute the potency of his detractors.

Somehow as the four days progressed, bit by bit, the Pope's visit transformed from the worry of embarrassment that reaction would be tepid, to the glow of the eventual warmth given off by the obvious love so many felt for him.

In fact within hours, Kay Adams was reporting that Edinburgh had found its voice and there was a jubilant mood amongst the now 125,000 crowd.

Most of Lancashire's Catholic pilgrims travelled south to events in Birmingham and London.

The stamina of those travellers was immense. Parties left from throughout our three diocese. They boarded four coaches in Burnley at two o'clock in the morning to get to Birmingham's Cofton Park for the beatification of Cardinal John Newman.

Sarah Kane
It was overwhelming
Sarah Kane

They had a lie-in, in the Archdiocese of Liverpool. It was only a three o'clock start for them!

In Lancaster, a double decker bus set off on the Friday evening to transport 72 pilgrims through the night to be in Westminster and then Hyde Park for mid-morning on Saturday.

Bumpy discomfort

Were the travelling hours of lost sleep and bumpy discomfort worth it?

When we spoke to Cafod's Anne Marie Coppock on our Sunday morning programme she appeared to be still floating on a cloud somewhere over Hyde Park.

It was there that Anne Marie had spent the previous evening with the Pope and 80,000 pilgrims at a prayer vigil which was set off by hundreds of candles against the London night sky.

"It was really, really wonderful. We were just surrounded by so many different people. Young people, elderly people, more young people than elderly people, people of all nationalities. It was awesome."

On the previous day, Anne Marie had been in the congregation at Westminster Abbey where she was impressed by the heritage of the building and the ecumenical multi-faith congregation of those worshipping alongside the pontiff.

"The history of our country has flowed through the abbey for so many years. To see our Pope, who is our faith leader, entering into the Westminster Abbey was just wonderful."

Anne Marie was also impressed by the Anglican greetings for the Catholic leader. "The welcome by the Archbishop of Canterbury gave a sense of unity. We were stood next to an Anglican vicar who was called Moira. She introduced herself and the sense of togetherness was wonderful."

The Anglican Bishop of Blackburn, the Right Reverend Nicholas Reade, was also in the congregation. He had met the the Pope hours earlier at Lambeth Palace. "It was just incredible. I just had to pinch myself. Here was I, over 60 years old and I thought back to when I was child and how the thought of the Pope being in Britain was unthinkable.

Yet, there he was meeting Anglican bishops alongside Roman Catholic bishops. It was quite sensational."

Sean McMahon
I think there was a much more positive response than many people expected
Sean McMahon

More open

Sarah Kane from Preston was part of the party of young people who had travelled to London with the Lancaster Diocese. Sarah told me: "It was amazing. The atmosphere and the excitement of meeting people from all over the country and to celebrate mass with them was wonderful. It was overwhelming.

"Outside Westminster Cathedral, no one knew what the atmosphere would be like and when the Pope emerged it was a profound moment."

Sean McMahon from Lancaster said: "I think there was a much more positive response than many people expected. The way the Pope interacted with the young people at Hyde Park and Westminster Cathedral was fantastic for the young Catholics of the UK."

For millions of Catholics the visit was profound. Yes, there were protests and some would agree the shadow of despicable crimes of abuse committed by a minute percentage of priests needs addressing in a bolder and more open way.

In truth, the visit was always shadowed by, what some would see as, the ineffectual response to these terrible events.

Though many would also point to the undisputed fact that an official visit of this scale would have been unthinkable 50 years ago.

The impact of the whole four days, they would say, grew from the minute the Pope landed in Edinburgh.

What followed was a welcome and spiritual experience that drew massive crowds. They were spiritually fulfilled by the religious masses and heartened by the human masses that grew in number as they cheered from the pavements and ran alongside the iconic Popemobile as it travelled through the English and Scottish capital cities.

Perhaps most productive of all was the living proof of how far the faiths and Christian denominations have come. How they can now talk to and understand each other. How they celebrate their commonalities and respect their differences.

The Pope's supporters will also sight the warmth of greeting expressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury as the pontiff arrived at Lambeth Palace. There in the afternoon autumnal sun, conscious of the watching world, two of the most important faith leaders on the planet greeted each other in the way of old friends.

That moment was the whole point of the four days summed up in four seconds, as to the joy of millions of Christians, the Pope met the Archbishop and they embraced with arms that encircled the world.

Joe presents the faith programme on BBC Radio Lancashire from 6am each Sunday.

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