The first two days of the Pope’s momentous visit to Great Britain were mostly related to matters of church and state, but on the third day, Benedict XVI's journey took a much more personal and pastoral turn.
It began Saturday morning when the pontiff traveled to the archbishop's house in Westminster and received in private audience Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, his deputy Nick Clegg, and the leader of the opposition, Harriet Harman.
The pontiff offered his condolences to Cameron on the recent loss of his father and then spoke to each of the politicians for about 20 minutes. It's not clear what the Pope said to Harman. who in the previous government, was at the forefront of equality legislation which the Pope directly opposed, but the discussion was reportedly friendly.
At the Pope's first Mass in England at Westminster Cathedral, he expressed deep sorrow for sexual abuse by priests, and called such acts “unspeakable crimes” that have brought “shame and humiliation” upon the Catholic Church.
He also spoke about them within the context of Christ’s suffering and referred to the “mystery” of the sacrifice of martyrs throughout the church's history.
The Rev. Jonathan How, a spokesman for the bishops conference, told me afterward that the Pope wanted to place Christ's suffering in the context of the abuse scandal. “If we feel shamed and humiliated by [the abuse], we are only sharing in what the victims and Christ experienced,” he said.
Many had come from all over Britain for the Mass and the vigil held later in Hyde Park to celebrate the life of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the famous English convert to Catholicism. Benedict XVI then greeted a lively crowd of some 2,500 youngsters from all over Britain. “First and foremost,” the Pope said, “[I ask you] to look into your own heart. Think of all the love that your heart was made to receive, and all the love it is meant to give. After all, we were made for love.”
The Pope also took a moment to greet the people of Wales, saying he was sad not have been able to visit the country but assured the Welsh people of his “deep love” and “constant closeness” in prayer.
As had been expected, the holy father also met five survivors of clerical abuse on Saturday: Three of the victims were from Yorkshire, one was from London; and one was from Scotland, and the meeting took place in Westminster.
A source close to the victims told the BBC they were “very emotional” and spent between 30 and 40 minutes with the Pope, "quite a significant length of time," the source reported, "longer than the prime minister got.”
After a short rest, the Pope resumed a grueling schedule and visited a Catholic Church-run seniors home. “Life is a unique gift, at every stage from conception until natural death, and it is God’s alone to give and to take,” the pontiff said. “One may enjoy good health in old age; but equally, Christians should not be afraid to share in the suffering of Christ, if God wills that we struggle with infirmity.”
As the day drew to a close, the Pope then did what many Britons will probably remember for many years to come: He took a popemobile journey through the heart of London. The Mall, the long boulevard leading up to Buckingham Palace that is so synonymous with empire, pageantry, and poignant moments in the country's history, was decorated from beginning to end with enormous Vatican flags and Union Jacks — a custom during state visits.
In his address, the Pope spoke about all that young Catholics can learn from Cardinal Newman. He also again referred to the example of Catholic martyrs, adding that although today Catholics are not hanged, drawn, and quartered for their faith, they are often "dismissed out of hand or ridiculed."
For me personally as a British Catholic, to see the vicar of Christ passing such familiar landmarks as Horse Guards Parade, Buckingham Palace, and the Mall and then leading a Benediction in Hyde Park, was an almost surreal experience and something I personally never imagined I'd see.
Perhaps more than the Pope's speech to parliament it was during these moments that it seemed the Catholic Church had once again truly become acceptable in Britain, that a new chapter for British Catholics had begun, and the country's troubled past with the church — an institution to which this country owes its deepest cultural roots — finally had come to an end.
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