BY LIZ DODD OUTSIDE WESTMINSTER ABBEY
PAPAL flags are everywhere, billowing against a backdrop of the Houses of Parliament. The square is overflowing with pilgrims hours before the Popemobile is scheduled to make the short journey from Lambeth Palace to Westminster Abbey, where the Holy Father will join the Archbishop of Canterbury for evening prayer. Children are perched on their parents’ shoulders as priests and other religious vie for space with bewildered, suited City workers. Some aren’t sure they’re in the right place: the police are heroically goodnatured, directing groups to the few remaining vantage points. Only one protester disturbs the peace on Parliament Square: a man, armed with a loudspeaker, who – at his most vitriolic – recites lines from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
Perhaps most striking are the hundreds of young people crowding the pavements. There is a spontaneity and palpable excitement to be experienced lining the streets that you can’t get at choreographed events – a real sense that you will, briefly, be near to the Pope.
Stephanie, 11, will be reading in front of 80,000 people at the Hyde Park prayer vigil on Saturday. Not satisfied with this, she is waiting with her mother to have a brief glimpse of the Popemobile. Reading in front of thousands of pilgrims is the last thing on her mind – she mentions it only in passing, far too excited that, in mere moments, she will see the Pope. This is the overwhelming feeling among the young people in the audience, blissfully unaware of the media furore that has plagued the visit. “I can’t wait to see the Pope,” enthuses Melissa, aged six. “I’m going to wave at him when he comes past in his van.” There is a flurry of excitement as a group of cardinals and other religious arrive and are ushered into Westminster Abbey – by the time Big Ben strikes six the procession is already running late. Updates are provided by those in the crowd armed with iPhones. And then an entire section of the crowd surges forwards. The Popemobile moves tantalisingly slowly, but it feels like the Pope has passed in seconds; everyone around you strains on tiptoes for a moment’s glimpse. Pilgrims the Pope has already passed run toward Westminster Abbey, and there’s an enormous crush underneath the media grandstand by the time the Holy Father climbs out of the Popemobile and, within seconds, is inside the building.
Exhausted, the crowd begins to fragment, peeling off toward the inevitable crush for the Tube. All except the diehard fans: “We’re here until eight,” one explains when I ask why they’re going against the flow: “We’re here as long as he is.”