Pope’s visit: Spiritual climax as faithful bid farewell
They gathered in their thousands, sheltering from a steady drizzle under a forest of umbrellas and plastic ponchos.
But, when Pope Benedict XVI finally appeared in Birmingham's Cofton Park yesterday the sunlight broke through to stream down on the beatification mass of Cardinal John Henry Newman.
The service was billed as the climax to the Pope's four-day state visit — a spiritual end to a trip that has seen him apologise for the clerical abuse scandals, warn against the dangers of secularism and protest at the “marginalisation of faith” in Britain.
For the Catholic Church, it was an opportunity to wave goodbye to its leader and celebrate one of its most profound modern thinkers.
Cardinal Newman is now all but guaranteed to become the first non-martyred British saint since 1401.
Standing in front of a crowd of 55,000 worshippers, the Pope used his homily to reflect on his own past as he commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and the defeat of the German Luftwaffe.
“For me, as one who lived and suffered through the dark days of the Nazi regime in Germany, it is deeply moving to be here with you on this occasion, and to recall how many of your fellow citizens sacrificed their lives courageously resisting the forces of that evil ideology,” he said.
His comments referred to the Pope's experiences during the Second World War, when he was forced to join the Hitler Youth, although he later deserted. It was the second time the pontiff had referred to Nazism during his trip.
Given the timing of the 10am Mass, most of the pilgrims were forced to travel through the night, trudging the last mile from their coaches on foot under a cold drizzle. But despite the gloom, the mood was jubilant as pilgrims prepared to bid farewell to the Pope.
Yesterday's crowd had an international flavour. At times it seemed there were almost as many Polish flags fluttering in the breeze as all the other nationalities combined.
Many worshippers said that the Pope had been treated unfairly by the media.
Niamh Moloney (24), a youth worker from Northampton, was walking through the park with a banner proclaiming: “Give it some welly for Pope in the Park.”
“We wanted to make some joyful noise because there had been so much negative coverage,” she said, adding that the thousands of young people who turned out for the Pope's Masses showed how he was still relevant to younger generations.