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Picture of banners waving outside Westminster Abbey
A Roman triumph in London

Posted on 20 September 2010, 8:29

Standing on sunny Lambeth Bridge on Friday, waiting for the Pope to emerge from Lambeth Palace and his meeting with the bishops and archbishops of the Church of England, I found myself next to Sister Veronica, a little nun from Cornwall with sky-blue eyes and a smile as wide as the ocean, who was waving a jolly big, yellow papal flag.

Everyone loved her: people kept coming over to ask if they could take her picture, for which she happily stood, and the policemen lining the barricades also stepped forward every now and then to ask if she was ok? Sister V, who has worked with young people for many years, had been on the bridge for five hours and was determined not to miss the Pope as he went by on his way to Westminster.

A mini-bus sped past us and she waved her papal flag at it. ‘I’ll wave at anything now,’ she said, laughing, ‘but those really were cardinals – I could see their red sashes round their waists.’

Behind us, Big Ben struck 5 o’clock, the time when the Popemobile was due to cross the bridge. I’d been tweeting events from my viewpoint all afternoon, and so hit the send button on the following: ‘Big Ben strikes 5… time for the Pope to finish up his tea, get into Ice Cream One and come over to Westminster.’

A policeman wandered over and said to Sister V: ‘He’ll be here in a couple of minutes.’

‘How do you know?’ I asked.

The policeman turned a perfectly straight face to me: ‘I can’t reveal my sources.’

Seven minutes later, the Popemobile swung onto the far end of Lambeth Bridge looking exactly as someone described it on Twitter a few days ago: ‘a bulletproof ice cream van’. It was surrounded by fridge-shaped men in well-cut dark suits who furiously eyeballed faces in the crowd as they walked the Popemobile along.

Above them, the Pope was imprisoned inside a greeny-blue bubble, sitting on a white plastic throne and waving in an old-man kind of way to the crowds on either side. So thick is the Popemobile’s armoured glass that he looked more like a hologram than the real thing, but one glance at the Vatican’s grim security detail told you this was the one and only Pope of Rome.

Sister Veronica hopped up onto a granite ledge behind me to get a better view, and as the Popemobile drew level with me on the crown of the bridge, I gained eye contact for the splittest of split seconds with Joseph Ratzinger as his pale blue eyes passed over me. I hope he did the same for Sister V, who was much more deserving of his attention.

The streets were stiff with crowds trying to slipstream behind the Holy Vehicle, but I found a back way, grabbed a coffee to drink as I walked, and came out by Great Smith Street, right in front of the west door of Westminster Abbey.

Coming towards me through the crowd was a highly pumped-up black preacher of the ranting school, blasting a way through the tightly-packed people by the sheer force of his shouted sermon. He was wearing a glossy barbecue apron printed with a Bible text. I tried to talk to him, but he ignored me and launched tunelessly into the evangelical chorus, ‘I love my Jesus, my Jesus loves me.’

The Popemobile pulled up outside the Abbey, and a forest of arms sprouted from the crowd, each hand holding a camera, wildly pointing and clicking in search of a Pope shot, however blurred. Once he was inside the Abbey and evening prayer had started, I looked around at the banners jostling for attention.

There was a huge sign reading ‘Welcome Holy Father’, and another with the less snappy, but still papal-friendly, ‘On this rock I will build my Church’.

More unpredictable was ‘We [heart] you Papa more than beans on toast’ held aloft by Niamh, a Catholic youth worker from North London. She was also wearing yellow and white papal wellington boots she had specially made, which I’m sure the Pope might like to swap for his red slippers.

Right next to ‘Welcome Holy Father’ was a black and white banner which sternly demanded, ‘No Popery’. And surrounding it, an armada of smaller banners made by old school Protestants, who were there in force. A couple of burly men from their team, sporting ‘Exalt Christ not the Pope’ t-shirts, told me they were from Zion Baptist in Glasgow, a Calvinistic church which has picketed Marilyn Manson in the past, and has followed the Pope down to London for this protest.

There were times in the next hour when I thought fighting might break out as Catholic and Protestant banners jockeyed for position in front of the TV cameras.

I talked to a Catholic woman carrying a huge picture of Benedict XVI and she was angry and upset. Her lovely day out with Papa Benny was being spoiled. ‘There are stupid people here shouting out that the Pope is a pedophile,’ she told me.

The streets of London have never sounded more theological. I passed one man explaining the teaching of St Irenaeus of Lyons to a small group of listeners. And further along, while rough-looking men hawked Pope badges to passers-by (‘Only a quid, mate’), a tall Catholic was in passionate conversation with a short Protestant about Matthew chapter 16, each man jabbing a finger at the other.

And all the while, as dusk fell, the Abbey stood huge, silent and pregnant with the people, priests, bishops, archbishops, cardinals, the Pope and the hard men of Vatican security inside. I was following the service on Twitter and was able to read the Pope’s address. With typical Ratzinger pugnacity he asserted his primacy as the successor of St Peter and reminded his listeners that the ancient building once belonged to Rome.

We waited. It grew dark. The banners manoeuvred. The arguments raged. Grown men in plastic aprons shouted themselves hoarse for the Lord.

Then the west doors swung open and the Abbey bells rang out, like the most joyous wedding, and the crowd went up in a rapture. In fact, it felt so like a wedding that I half expected to see that odd couple, Rowan Williams and Joe Ratzinger, walk out hand in hand surrounded by clergy bridesmaids in lacy frocks… but that’s another universe.

In short order, the Pope entered a dark car and his motorcade swept from the Abbey. I couldn’t help noticing that the last vehicle was an ambulance. It was a Roman triumph, with mortality whispering in the ear.

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It all came back to me… working the crowds on behalf of the Liverpool Daily Post when Pope John Paul came to Scouse-land in the 1980s and there was a celebratory mass in ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’. The smiles on the faces of the faithful were rapturous and unforgettable.

The Popemobile at that time, I seem to recall, was made by British Leyland. Today’s Ice Cream Van came courtesy of Mercedes – a sign of the times.

david stuckey, Tue 21 Sep, 15:10

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