Today saw Pope Benedict XVI beatify John Henry Newman - one of the greatest of English churchmen. What joy it was to see the Pope arrive in Cofton Park this morning, the sunshine travelling with him, as if nature itself was singing to the glory of God! And, although the bishops conference seemed to have made a complete hash of organising tickets for the event, there were plenty of men, women and children there to greet the Holy Father, and to celebrate Bl John Henry being raised to the altar.
Last night saw the Pope lead around 80,000 worshippers in a special prayer vigil in Hyde Park. The police also estimate that about 300,000 well-wishers lined the Holy Father's route to the Park, whilst those protesting against the Papal visit numbered around 5,000. These figures speak volumes. I also noticed that many of the protesters had finally realised that they had nothing to protest about, as the false impressions of the Pope or the Catholic Church were exposed by the truth. I felt immensely sorry for those alleged victims of child abuse, though, especially seeing that they were being cynically used by lobbyists - usually gays, protestants, atheists or muslims - who care very little about their plight, and whose oversized egos seem to rule their reason. The world, after the Pope's words at Mass in Westminster Cathedral yesterday, can now be in no doubt that this Papacy is determined to remove the filth from the priesthood, and seeks to bring some peace to those souls that have been so horrendously damaged by those priests who were (or are) wolves in sheep's clothing.
Prayer Vigil at Hyde Park
Yesterday was a day of mixed feelings for me. I really wanted to have been present at Westminster Cathedral for the Papal Mass - and not being able to attend, living so close to the event, was quite upsetting. On the other hand, though, I felt immensely privileged to have been allocated a ticket to the prayer vigil in Hyde Park.
I had been asked to carry a banner for an organisation, so spent the morning trying to watch the Papal Mass on the television whilst also attempting to make final adjustments to the banner itself. I also had to rush off to the local church to get my ticket for the Hyde Park event. I managed to do this very early and got back home just in time to see the Pope process out for Mass, to MacMillan's wonderful Tu es Petrus!
After watching the Eucharist live from Westminster Cathedral, as well as the wonderful address Pope Benedict XVI gave to the young people gathered outside on the Piazza, and his greeting to the people of Wales, I had a quick sandwich before heading towards the local tube station. It was quite an experience to carry a large banner on the tube - especially whilst standing in a crammed carriage! Fortunately, though, the vast majority of my fellow passengers were also Papal pilgrims, all eager to help as best they could.
Those who had been appointed as banner-bearers, I think there were around 700 of us, were required to gather at a designated "pen", where were given special passes and told to wait for further instructions. I managed to leave the cordoned off area for about an hour, during which time I had a very nice cup of tea, and chatted with various people - all of whom were very excited and happy to be waiting for Pope Benedict. The rest of the time was spent watching the excellent dancing - which, thankfully, wasn't liturgical (see my overly negative previous post, for which I offer a sincere mea culpa) - and listening to some of the music being performed on the stage. In fact, the two or three hours of waiting around went by very quickly. During this time, I also caught up with old friends, some of whom were carrying the banners of parishes or groups to which I had once belonged.
The banner-procession began at 4pm, and lasted about an hour. This part of the afternoon also went by very quickly. We snaked our way through the crowds, often stopping at various points, before reaching the main stage, where we were met by several bishops. It seemed only a matter of minutes before I had reached the stage, and walked across, banner in one hand, whilst using the other to greet the bishops. It was nice to meet the two bishops I used to know quite well, as well as one of the auxiliaries from Westminster.
Those of us who had been on the procession were finally directed to some seats - and, to my great joy, these seats were very close to the stage which would later serve as the "sanctuary" for the prayer vigil. It was so good to be able to sit down, and I really felt sorry for the tens of thousands of pilgrims behind me who had to stand or sit on the ground.
During the next hour and a bit there were many things to keep us occupied. The highlight was undoubtedly a talk from the heart given by the Mizen family. Both parents spoke about the tragic loss of their son, Jimmy, and of their deep Christian faith and their Catholic parish (Lee, in South London) - both of which helped them immensely during their pain and distress. I wrote about the Jimmy Mizen foundation, which they have established to combat anger with peace, in a previous post, here.
I must confess that some of the presentations we had to sit through were obviously dear to the NuChurch (i.e. modernist) organisers. There were lots of videos shown about social change and "equality", which seemed to suggest that Catholicism was merely a left-leaning socialist movement, devoid of theology, liturgy or doctrine - to suggest that works alone bring about salvation is a very dangerous heresy! Amidst the occasional evangelical song, such a "Shine, Jesus, Shine", it would have been nice to have had some orthodox catechises or a rousing sermon on the guardian angels, the Rosary, or just anything Catholic!
By about 6pm a palpable excitement began to rush through the crowds. We could see on the screens that the Pope had left Westminster in his popemoblie, and that cheering crowds were greeting him all the way down the Mall. We knew that he was on his way! We were also being entertained by The Priests, who were singing a selection of classical oratorios. As the popemobile went through the Wellington Arch the assembled choir and orchestra performed a very rousing rendition of the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah. Seeing the Supreme Pontiff on the screen and listening to the powerful music in praise of God really electrified the crowd. The sky was a beautiful blue colour, and God was very present. The immanent arrival of Pope Benedict was the closest I have been to feeling ecstatic for quite a long time! It wasn't the kind of ecstasy that one might feel before the Blessed Sacrament, or in silence - rather, this feeling was a shared joy and gratitude, felt by so many at the same time and in the same place. We were glad to be Catholic, and we wanted to show our love for our Holy Father!
Of course, we all went wild when Pope Benedict XVI actually entered the arena. I even stood on my chair and started shouting "Viva il Papa!" at the top of my voice! Those who know me would testify that this sort of behaviour is completely out of character for me. I am, to say the least, a rather reserved sort of man! But, after all the nonsense and negativity that had been levelled against the Holy Father in the British media, I really wanted to tell him - even if he was sitting behind three inches of glass - that I was grateful to him for his ministry and to God for my faith. At one point the popemobile was only a few feet away from me - and it was quite a job to simultaneously wave my Papal flag, stand on a plastic chair, and take a photo! The resulting picture wasn't that good, as you can see - but as I took it Archbishop Vincent Nichols was looking directly at me, and his face seemed to be saying, "I hope you don't all off that chair!"
The prayer vigil itself was beautiful - though it didn't really conform to any of the known liturgies of the Catholic Church! It seemed to have been a mixture of Mass, evening prayer, and benediction. The Pope was dignified throughout, of course, even if he did seem understandably tired! I just couldn't believe how close he was to me, although my pictures of the Holy Father (taken with a mobile phone, unfortunately) didn't come out well at all.
The Pope's homily was both profound and beautiful - see here for a full copy. He managed to convey our joy concerning Newman's imminent beatification. He also drew on Newman's life, especially his fidelity to the truth and his conversions to faith and to the Church, as examples for us to follow. Being faithful to our calling can cause great suffering, and the Holy Father reminded us of the Tyburn Martyrs - who died for the Catholic faith less than a couple of hundred yards away from where we were. Pope Benedict XVI also asked us, and especially the young, to consider our vocations, and to discover what mission God has for us. He quoted Newman, who famously wrote in his Meditations on Christian Doctrine,
God has created me to do him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to anotherThis led the Pope to ask the young people what "definite service" they thought God had called them to. I must confess that I felt rather ashamed at this point, for I am not young, and I am yet to discern my calling!
Of course, Benediction was wonderful - especially seeing the Successor of Peter gazing at the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. I felt as if we were all immediately present at the various scenes of Our Lord's life. It seemed as if it was St Peter himself who was kneeling before the Lord, who in turn was reaching out to him with the words "feed my sheep". There were a few odd things about this part of the evening, though. Firstly, it there were young women serving on the altar - which, being a Papal event, watched by millions, seemed rather controversial [please see this post's comments section]. Some could argue that the organisers were using the liturgy, by placing young women next to the Pope (who, I believe does not allow young women to serve at his liturgies), in a "political" way - thus detracting from adoration and worship. The second strange thing about Benediction was that we banner-bearers had to leave our seats half way through and carry lighted candles to where the stage was. There is nothing wrong with this, except we didn't really process anywhere, or do anything. This mini-liturgy of the candles, though, meant that I got to be even closer to the Holy Father and the Blessed Sacrament!
All in all, the evening, of course, was a really amazing event - and we were all sad, I think, that it had to come to an end, and that the Holy Father had to leave us. After the last hymn was sung, I headed off with what had become, by then, a rather tatty banner! I met a friend, who had been in the main part of the arena, and walked home. Those words of scripture kept coming to mind throughout the walk home, "Did not our hearts burn within us...".
Cor ad cor loquitur
[Picture notes: Various scenes from the prayer vigil at Hyde Park. The photos tend to correspond to the text]