Pope in Hyde Park: Ask to say 'yes'

If Pope Benedict is half as tired as I now feel at the end of the vigil in London's Hyde Park, he will sleep well tonight -- after another punishing schedule at the close of his triumphant UK visit.

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The Vigil -- which managed to resist being termed "Pope in the Park" -- was moving, powerful, and prayerful, a wonderful showcase of English Catholicism, and further proof that Benedict XVI is very far from the aloof academic he is often described as. His spontaneous response to an enthusiastic crowd of 80,000, including thousands of exuberant young people, had touches of his predecessor; and his message, too, had at times a John Paul II feel.

His arrival, preceded by a visit to an elderly home in south London (remarks here), saw 200,000 line some of Westminster's signature streets -- easily overwhelming the 6,000-odd protesters. Journalists in the press tent were kept busy with two breaking stories, which flowed perfectly from this morning's main story, the Pope's expression of contrition over abuse at the Cathedral.

The first was that, as it was expected he would, Pope Benedict met abuse victims at the nunciature in south-west London, where he went for lunch and a rest after Mass this morning in Westminster Cathedral. He prayed with them and assured them that the Catholic Church is continuing to implement effective measures designed to safeguard young people, and that "it is doing all in its power to investigate allegations, to collaborate with civil authorities and to bring to justice clergy and religious (brothers) accused of these egregious crimes,"

The second piece of news, which appeared in our inboxes just minutes before the Pope arrived at the Hyde Park arena, was that the Pope had also met officials of the Church's Safeguarding Commission while visiting a home for the elderly in Vauxhall, south London. The meeting, said the Vatican, was the first of its kind.

He praised them for ensuring that "the preventative measures put in place are effective, that they are maintained with vigilance, and that any allegations of abuse are dealt with swiftly and justly" and added:

It is deplorable that, in such marked contrast to the Church’s long tradition of care for them, children have suffered abuse and mistreatment at the hands of some priests and religious. We have all become much more aware of the need to safeguard children, and you are an important part of the Church’s broad-ranging response to the problem. While there are never grounds for complacency, credit should be given where it is due: the efforts of the Church in this country and elsewhere, especially in the last ten years, to guarantee the safety of children and young people and to show them every respect as they grow to maturity, should be acknowledged. I pray that your generous service will help to reinforce an atmosphere of trust and renewed commitment to the welfare of children, who are such a precious gift from God

In what may have been a deft piece of news management by the Church, these two stories broke just as the "Protest the Pope" demonstration was gathering a few thousand placard-waving gay activists and abuse survivors. As the news broadcasts flicked between the Pope meeting frail elderly people and the demonstrators, their allegations, that the Church was covering up abuse, seemed far more unpersuasive than just a few days ago. Peter Tatchell, the frontman for "Protest the Pope" was left complaining about the "massive Catholic media machine" with which, he said, they could barely compete.

This is certainly a new experience for British Catholics -- to be painted as a "massive media machine".

Once the Vigil began, the moment was the Pope's. The Priests -- the Northern Irish clerical trio whose albums have sold massively -- were the warm-up stars; but the real star was a huge choir drawn from all the dioceses of England and Wales who have been practising for three days.

Pope Benedict seemed to respond warmly to the crowd, which waved flags and sang "Be-ne-dict-us" over and over.

In his homily, he drew three lessons from Newman's life and work. The first was that "in our day, when an intellectual and moral relativism threatens to sap the very foundations of our society, Newman reminds us that, as men and women made in the likeness of God, we were created to know the truth, to find in that truth our ultimate freedom and the fulfilment of our deepest human aspirations."

Second, he said Newman's life showd how a passion for the truth and intellectual honesty are costly, and called for testimony. "In our own time the price to be paid for fidelity to the Gospel is no longer being hanged, drawn and quartered but it often involves being dismissed out of hand, ridiculed or parodied," he said, adding that the Church "cannot withdraw from the task of proclaiming Christ and His gospel as saving truth".

Finally, he said, Newman teaches that "there can be no separation between what we believe and the way we live our lives". By praying and through the sacraments, the Pope said, "we draw people one step closer to Christ and His truth".

He then quoted Newman's mediation that "God has called me to some definite service. He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another". Only Jesus knows what that "definite service" is, he went on; and he urged young people to "be open to his voice resounding in the depths of your heart: even now his heart is speaking to your heart."

"Ask Our Lord what he has in mind for you! Ask him for the generosity to say 'yes!' Do not be afraid to give yourself totally to Jesus."

If it weren't delivered in the Pope's deadpan, heavily accented English, this might have sounded like an evangelical revival; but this was the Successor to St Peter.

And now I must snatch a few hours of sleep before catching a pilgrim bus to Cofton Park in Birmingham -- leaving in just a few hours at 3.30 am (it's not the distance that imposes the early hour, but the obsessive security arrangements. However tired I feel now, there remains a sense of exhilaration that Pope Benedict has confronted shobboleths -- and toppled them. Tomorrow, at the Beatication Mass, he will no doubt do so again.

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