It has been wonderful beyond words. Yet I think I can see something of a parallel in what happened just twelve short months ago. TWELVE months! And yet the last four days have felt like a whole year together in some respects.
In case anyone has forgotten- it is just twelve months since what I see as a kind of remarkable curtain-raiser for Pope Benedict's visit occurred in the events surrounding the visit of the relics of St Therese to our country. The spiteful venom expressed in the media by people with some kind of animus against the Catholic Church was apparent then in the period leading up to the relics' visit. What was it in the reverencing of some "bones of a dead nun" by benighted credulous papists that so disgusted these sophisticated types?
If hateful attacks from outside were one thing, then a view, inside the Church, that the visit would be of interest to very few Catholics in this country, was another. In the event everyone was taken by surprise when thousands turned out at a whole series of venues to venerate the relics. Some of the erstwhile critics, no doubt with a certain sensitivity towards the market out there in the real world, began to subtly moderate their tone.
Fast forward to last week and the stage is set. This time the issue of child abuse by clergy is taken up as a particularly devastating cudgel with which to attack the Church by people whose own record on the subject is curious to say the least. Richard Dawkins, who is on record as having experienced sexual abuse at one of the private schools he attended and considered it little worse than "embarassing", wants to have the Pope arrested. Mr Tatchell, who had earlier advocated "intergenerational sex"as not necessarily a bad thing, is similarly exercised over the papal visit. Radio and Television journalists constantly speak of the proposed visit as "overshadowed" by the "abuse crisis". Within the Church signs look ominous not least because some of the bishops seem to be bent on discouraging people from attending events. We are told that tickets will be rationed and that people will mostly have to follow on television and internet.
Health and safety regulations and terrorist/security threats are given as reasons and even for those determined to attend events there are hurdles- from the limited number of tickets available to each parish, to admission being dependent upon using the approved transport. "Pilgrims" were to be bussed in and the charges, for families for instance, could be considerable. In addition it was necessary to register an interest in going and provide payment within a very short time frame. It was beginning to look as if the whole thing was being organised by people who wanted the visit to be a conspicuous flop. Particularly dispiriting was the pessimism of some clergy. "People just won't turn out for Benedict as they did for John Paul" was something I heard one priest say somehow ignorant of the fact that, apart from being asked to contribute to collections and buy approved Papal Visit memorabilia, no one was asked to pay for tickets in 1982. Then too, in 1982, there had a long period of practical preparation in the parishes with sessions devoted to practising the music. That, this time, it might prove a badly attended flop looked real enough, given such less favourable conditions. Thanks be to God: it did not but what actually happened, glorious as it was, is not, in my opinion, easily explained. The events of last September may hold a key.
I found so much that happened during Pope Benedict's visit profoundly and joyfully moving. Many of my own thoughts and feelings of the first three days I found being echoed by others either when we were waiting to get on the bus or chatting in the queue to get through the security check at Cofton Park- from the wondrous beauty of the Mass at Westminster through disgust at the BBC obsessive focus upon the abuse scandal to a shared resolution to be simply there to support the Holy Father in the face of his enemies. There were many "Gosh! I thought that!" moments for me on Sunday- encounters with the surprisingly familiar but the trip to Birmingham began with the realisation that we three were among fellow parishioners only a handful I knew even merely by sight.
Part of this might be explained by the fact that the church where I attend Sunday mass and have been most active is actually a chapel of ease within a parish of fair size and territorially extensive. Our party was culturally diverse including new Polish arrivals and Travelling people in addition to the more traditional mix but we were the only ones from our end of the parish. I had been disappointed when the invitation had been given out that so few at our church had responded. I had been sad too at hearing from my brother in another diocese and how his considerably-sized parish had seen a poor response. I had heard, too, of how there had been no take up of tickets in one very well-heeled parish in the Liverpool diocese. Reflecting upon this I began to wonder if the take up of the £25 tickets was largely in inverse proportion to the wealth of the pilgrims. "Largely", I say, because I myself am not poor- yet. One of the reasons I had been dismayed at news of the charge when proposed was the fear that this would discourage all but the fully motivated with the result that the media would be enabled to continue their "declining church attendance line". I felt that we needed as great a number of bodies present as could possibly be imagined in order to smash that lie. In the event the privilege of being in such company was to be magnified many times over in the field at Cofton Park. (tbc)
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