The Pope in Scotland: a view from the ground
Meanwhile, those of us going to the Papal Mass in Bellahouston Park were issued with our special wristbands before making our way down to the train station for the journey to Glasgow. After a very smooth journey, we arrived in the park just in time to see on the big screens images of the Holy Father’s progress along Prince’s Street at about 12:30. Though we didn’t have the BBC commentary there, news soon got round our group (thanks to the wonders of modern technology) that one of the students back in Edinburgh had been interviewed during the live television coverage, along with Fr Dermot Morrin OP, who had accompanied the group down to the parade.
My first impression of the park was the sheer size of the site, and I think we all found it quite inspiring to see the constant stream of pilgrims, coming from three or four different directions and all converging on the entrances to the park. Despite the prospect of almost a five hour wait for the beginning of Mass, there was a real sense of excitement and anticipation in the ever-growing crowd. During the afternoon, there were live and video performances from Catholic schools around Scotland, as well as video presentations from various agencies of the Church in Scotland (the Scotthis Catholic International Aid Fund, Catholic Scottish Parliamentary Office, Vocations Office etc.), interspersed with rehearsals for the music we would be singing at the Mass. While one might have been forgiven for thinking one was at a pop concert to judge by the reaction of the crowd to the appearance on stage of Susan Boyle, the Catholic singer made famous by the TV programme Britain’s Got Talent, there was nevertheless definitely a sense that this was all secondary, and a build-up to the main event.
As the Pope’s arrival drew near, preparations shifted up a gear: we moved on from light entertainment to some rousing hymn-singing (our group, if I say so myself, contributing with particular gusto) as the hundreds of concelebrating priests processed through the crowd to the sanctuary. Then, suddenly, a great cheer went up from one corner of the park, spreading swiftly throughout the congregation: the Pope was here. The crowd was transformed into a sea of Vatican flags, interspersed with those not only of Scotland, but also of Kenya, Poland, Ireland, Angola and Spain (to name the few I noticed and remembered). The Holy Father made his way in a figure-of-eight around the congregation, accompanied by vigorous cheering and waving of banners: even Susan Boyle’s welcome could not compete!
The true purpose of our gathering, however, became very clearly expressed for me when, as the Pope disappeared to vest, the commentator called for silence as we got ready to take part in the Mass. In the 70,000-strong crowd, you could have heard a pin drop as everyone in quiet prayer prepared to participate in the celebration of the Eucharist: there was a real sense of unity and common purpose even in that silence, a sense which only grew stronger as the Mass began, and seventy thousand people together with the Holy Father confessed to the Lord and to each other their sins, and their need for God’s mercy.
After the homily, we came, of course, as at every Mass, to the Offertory procession and Eucharistic Prayer, during which again there was a tangible sense of the massive congregation’s focus on the altar and the heart of the Eucharistic celebration. Following a joyful exchange of the sign of peace with friends and strangers, we prepared to receive Holy Communion: the sight of hundreds of yellow umbrellas (which sheltered the priests and deacons bearing the Blessed Sacrament) as they spread out through the crowd served as a powerful visual sign, to my mind at least, of the grace of Christ spreading out from the altar and all these people being drawn into his Body by receiving his Body in the Sacrament.
Personally, I thank the Lord for the opportunity to participate in this wonderful occasion, together with a great and enthusiastic group from our chaplaincy in Edinburgh, while on my pastoral placement there! Let us all pray for the Holy Father as he continues his visit in England, that he may bear fruitful witness to the message of Jesus Christ and strengthen Catholics in their faith there, as I’m sure he has, with the help of the Holy Spirit, here in Scotland!