On this day exactly ten years ago during the Great Jubilee of the year 2000 it was my privilege to enter the Vatican Basilica through the Holy Door. There followed mass at the end of which Pope John Paul II, to our surprise and delight, entered to the applause of the vast throng. The feast of St Bede seeming an auspicious day for the arrival of us English pilgrims we had chanced upon a mass celebrated for scientists and when the Pope took his seat in front of the high altar he was addressed by one or two academic worthies before making his speech. Somewhat stooped and frail by then he nevertheless seemed to completely recover his old power once he began to speak. I had first seen Pope John Paul in the flesh during the Easter Triduum of 1979 in Rome when, as I frequently recalled, I was within a few feet of him when he blessed the new fire and Paschal Candle in the narthex of St. Peter's.
Three years later I was, initially, less than enthusiastic at the news of his projected visit to Great Britain, after all, I had been "with" him in Rome- but subsequently felt I couldn't afford to miss it. On the Saturday evening, while staying with my parents, I heard a report on the BBCMidlands news that already the roads around Coventry airport were busy. Indeed they seemed to be trying to discourage more people from going. It being a fine evening we decided that we had better lose no more time and so we set off on the forty mile journey. The roads were not busy and we arrived well before sunset. There were many people there but the site itself was vast and thousands of us settled down for the night on the airfield. The night was mild and, in an atmosphere of cheerful anticipation, passed quickly. The sun rose brilliantly upon a vast crowd that continued to grow. I am not normally one for crowds but at no time did I feel oppressed or "crowded". Wherever one went the joyful anticipation and good will were palpable.
Fast forward to 2010! Having experienced such ease in seeing Pope John Paul I am still bemused at the suggestion that Pope Benedict's visit will be ticket only. If Pope Benedict's visit had never been proposed I would not have been bothered. He is not a young man and there is no obvious necessity, despite the custom of Paul VI and John Paul II, to travel around the world. But this visit is about so much more than even Pope Benedict XVI. It is, among other things, our opportunity to demonstrate, before a world so much more hostile to Christ and His Church than was the case in 1982, our loyalty as British Catholics to the Holy Father.
Again I recall the hatred, the sneering hostility, in the media towards the visit of the relics of St Therese here last autumn. Once the visit was under way it suddenly seemed to stop. Why?
I believe it was because everyone was surprised- and some were shocked- at the sheer numbers of us that turned out. Surely we must be allowed to turn out on this occasion to expose the lies that the devil's friends are already composing for the visit:
-"he's not as popular with the faithful as John Paul"
-"he is out of touch with today's catholics"
-"only in traditionally Catholic countries can he expect to be welcomed"
-"the church has been decimated by the sex abuse scandals".
So often, in this country, the Church is falsely represented by its enemies, or poorly represented by false friends. The papal visit is an opportunity- or should be- for the Church in this land to be literally exhibited, displayed, manifested by its members, clergy and laity, bodily and visibly assembled in prayer with the Holy Father.
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