A Day to Remember — Pope Benedict in Hyde Park — 18 September 2010
Saturday 18 September 2010 was warm and sunny – a perfect day for our rendezvous with Pope Benedict in Hyde Park. I joined the parish group at Broadstairs station, and our train left just after 9am To profit from a special travel offer, we went in groups of four. I was with Joe and Birgit, and Mancunian Tim, the banner-bearer for Star of the Sea parish, joined us at the last minute. Spending all those hours together, we really got to know one another that day. What lovely people!
Arrived at Victoria, our little group decided to walk to Hyde Park. Hundreds of other people were doing the same thing, sporting their bright yellow ‘Papal Visit’ back-packs just as we were. There was a spring in our steps and a sense of excitement as we made our way alongside the high wall of Buckingham Palace garden, crossed into the park at Hyde Park Corner and moved up the path parallel to Park Lane towards the Marble Arch entrance to the enclosure. We got there soon after 12.15, but the gates were not to open until 1 p.m. We made contact with the rest of the parish group again, and Ken, our leader, made sure that everyone had what they needed – identification, a folding seat, food and drink for the day... When the gates were opened, the crowd slowly started to move through, everyone having been given a pink psychedelic wrist-band by the group leader, who, for security reasons, had to vouch for each person in the group individually. Our foursome soon found a spot to sit – we weren’t particularly near the covered stage, but there were huge screens all over the place, so we knew we’d be able to see what was going on.
We tucked into our packed lunches, and then, for several hours, we were entertained by music, dance, mime and movement groups – English, Irish, Polish, African and Romanian. The entertainers were mostly young people, and they gave lively performances to tumultuous applause. For me, the most touching presentation was given by the Larondina Dance Group. The dancers were young men and women with ‘special needs’ – many of them looked as if they were Downs Syndrome sufferers. Their dancing was incredibly graceful, almost balletic, and their response to the audience was electric. They looked beautiful, the girls in deep blue dresses, the boys in black, and they were full of joy and self-confidence.
The compères of the show were Carol Vorderman and Frank Boyce-Cotterell, and they were just right for the occasion – informal, warmly appreciative, and clearly part of the Catholic community. There were a few moments of quiet at different points in the afternoon when the sundrenched park was filled with wordless prayer. At another point, Carol and Frank led the crowd in reciting the ‘Hail, Mary’.
But what of the reason why we were gathered there? Why were we, an incredibly cosmopolitan crowd (Cardinal Kasper may have been right about Britain being like a Third World country, if by that, he meant splendidly multi-cultural!), waiting all those hours, picnicking on the green grass of Hyde Park, enjoying the sun and fresh air, admiring the huge, beautiful trees (still barely touched by autumn gold), chatting companionably and clapping enthusiastically as the young people entertained us?
Halfway through the afternoon, there was a reminder that all the fun and entertainment was not an end in itself. The banner-bearers were asked to assemble at a given point, and not long afterwards, the procession began. The banners, held by reps from all the parishes of England and Wales, and also from major Catholic organisations like HCPT and CAFOD, were marked simply with names and places, and they were carried without fanfare. As the bearers moved forward, every single one of the bishops of England and Wales arrived, having been at the Cathedral for Mass in the morning. They sat on the stage, and shook hands with each banner-bearer. They must have suffered from cramp in their right hands – there were so many hands to shake! We lost Tim at this point. He couldn’t find his way back to us, and we didn’t see him again until we met him, miraculously in all that crowd, in Grosvenor Place as we walked back to Victoria at the end of the day.
The slow procession was coming to an end when the Bishop of East London (I think that’s who it was, though I don’t know his name) took the microphone and spoke with great enthusiasm about global justice and peace. He reminded us that the New York conference of world leaders, set up to discuss the so-called ‘millennium goals’, was taking place at that very moment. He suggested that we, a crowd of 80,000 people, might like to add our voices to those of many other people all over the world calling on their leaders to ensure that those goals of alleviating poverty and hunger and injustice will be taken seriously. The crowd agreed enthusiastically, shouting and waving hands. This response was photographed (it appeared immediately on our screens) and was sent electronically to New York – to the delight of the crowd, which erupted with applause.
Time was moving on. What was scheduled as an ‘entrance procession’ before the Pope arrived took place next. The music and singing, led by a substantial choir and a small orchestra with lots of brass, was outstanding. The three Belfast priests sang at this point, and there were also hymns by Christopher Walker and Bernadette Farrell, some African songs too, and, finally, ‘Shine, Jesus, shine’, sung with great volume and enthusiasm.
The time was, I think, approaching 6 p.m. when we saw on the screen the popemobile driving through the streets of London to Hyde Park. The Mall looked wonderful in the evening sun, the pavements lined with cheering, flag-waving crowds. As the Pope entered Hyde Park, the sense of anticipation and excitement in our enclosure reached a peak. Then he got out of his ‘chariot’ and walked up the steps to the stage, which had been transformed into a magnificent place of worship for the Vigil of Prayer, which began with the singing of ‘Christ be before me’. Archbishop Peter Smith gave a formal welcome, and the Pope said an opening prayer. This was followed by the Liturgy of the Word. The homily was fairly short, focusing first on Newman, before moving to the ‘secularisation’ theme, which Benedict treated less emphatically this time. He then spoke with quiet conviction of the call of Christians to transform the world through love. The many young people present were invited to reflect on the ‘definite service’ (Newman) that God has in mind for each of them. He mentioned the vocations of marriage and of religious life, of priesthood and of education. ‘Do not be afraid to give yourself totally to Jesus,’ he said to them. He also invited them to join him in Madrid for World Youth Day next year. The homily ended with the words, ‘...let us ask the Lord to illuminate our path, and the path of all British society, with the kindly light of his truth, his love and his peace.’
After a pause for reflection, the Blessed Sacrament was exposed, and there was a short period of silent adoration. By then it was night and the monstrance appeared on the screen, shining intensely in the encircling darkness, and, from a believer’s point of view, what could only be described as a sacred aura emanated from it in that place where so many people were gathered in prayer. There were scores of young children in the crowd, and in the course of the day I had seen not a few tiny babies too, but there was no sound to break the profound stillness of those moments.
‘Panis angelicus’, beautifully sung by the three priests from Northern Ireland, brought the silence to an end, and then the Litany of the Sacred Heart was said. It was a new translation of the old litany, which we had recited in the novitiate, together with the addition of nine new invocations concerned with healing and suffering. The young voices, alternately female and male, were clear and touchingly sincere: ‘Heart of Jesus, safe-guarder of the vulnerable.... Heart of Jesus, companion of the ignored.... Heart of Jesus, wounded by our failings....’ ‘Have mercy on us’, was the heartfelt response. Then Newman’s famous prayer, ‘Radiating Christ’, was recited by everyone. ‘Lead, Kindly Light’, sung, as I remember, softly and with an indefinable tenderness, preceded the Blessing, and the plainsong ‘Tantum Ergo’ brought the time of adoration to an end. ‘Tell out, my soul’ was sung loudly and briskly as the recessional hymn.
After Benedict in his popemobile, smiling, and his hand raised in affectionate farewell, had left the park, everyone began moving purposefully towards the exits. It was after 8.30 p.m., and we had all been in the park since 1 p.m. Our part of the crowd moved like a fast-flowing river down to Hyde Park Corner and into Grosvenor Place. There we discovered that all the roads between the park and Victoria Station had been cleared of traffic – so we made good progress, with the friendly police giving instructions to any strangers to London who were unsure of the way. We caught the 9.22 to Ramsgate by the skin of our teeth, and managed to find a seat into the bargain. It had been a long day, but when, tired but happy, we reached Broadstairs soon after 11 p.m., we knew it had been a very special day, a day to remember. We felt glad and privileged to have been part of it.
By: Teresa White, fcJ