I can remember clearly the last time I felt genuinely proud to be a Catholic.
It was May 1, 1982. I was 18 at the time and one of 250,000 faithful followers who flocked to Heaton Park in Manchester to attend Mass being said by Pope John Paul II during his historic and incredibly successful visit to the UK.
My entire family — mum, dad and all my seven brothers and sisters — went as part of a convoy of countless coaches from our parish in Preston the night before, clutching sleeping bags and pillows and then sleeping in the open air overnight in a vast field filled with people as far as the eye could see.
Of course, I didn’t sleep very well. In fact, I barely shut my eyes all night, partly due to the strange circumstances of lying al fresco and side by side with complete strangers in the dewy grass, partly due to the great excitement of the whole momentous event.
Pope John Paul II was a wonderful, charismatic and inspiring leader. To us, he was a genuinely holy man; the closest we would ever get to seeing the likeness of a living Jesus in our lifetime.
Yet he was real. He was humble, from a poor and persecuted Polish family. The goodness that generated from him was almost visible, like an aura that radiated outwards, enlightening and warming the hearts of all in his sight.
The excitement as the moment approached was tangible, audible, incredible.
Word had spread that the Holy Father would be arriving by helicopter at approximately 10am and so as soon as a helicopter was sighted in the sky the entire crowd — all quarter of a million of us —burst into jubilant song with the opening hymn and theme of the Mass:
“How lovely on the mountains are the feet of Him,
“Who brings good news, good news.
“Announcing Peace, proclaiming words of happiness :
“Our God reigns! Our God Reigns!”
Unfortunately it wasn’t him. It was just a police helicopter surveying the crowd but, by God, did they get a rousing welcome! How we all laughed at the silly mistake, imagining the faces of those few peelers as their fly-by prompted such mass euphoria:
“I bet they’ve never had such a rapturous response before!” people were saying ... “It must make a nice change from being pelted with stones by football hooligans!”
Yes, the atmosphere was amazing, happy, joyous, forever memorable. It was wonderful to be part of it, to feel like we were all there, sharing these precious moments together like one huge family. When he finally did arrive, everyone held hands and sang and prayed. In all my life it was the most spiritually-uplifting occasion I can ever recall.
How times have changed.
Pope Benedict has single-handedly destroyed my faith in my faith.
As his scowling face stares out from yet another newspaper — once again condemning what I believe to be right — and condoning, excusing and sometimes even rewarding what can only be wrong, I wonder how many people have lost faith in the Church, like I have, since he became its leader?
Now as the countdown begins to this Pope’s first visit to our country, one story in the news caught my eye and gave a hint at the answer.
Headlined ‘Papal Visit’s Collection Plate is £2.6m Short’, it read. ‘With the Pope due to arrive in Britain in just over a month, the Catholic Church is facing a £2.6m shortfall in donations needed to pay for the visit ...’
Sorry, I thought as I read it, but don’t be expecting me to dig deep into my pockets anytime soon.