Let the British people flock to see the Vicar of Christ

On May 23 we Catholic priests found ourselves in an awkward position. We had to appeal to our congregations at Mass that day to contribute to the costs of Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain in September, all the while knowing that few among them will actually get to see him.

The reasons for restricting numbers, according to the official papal trip website, include “health and safety issues, security considerations and comfort requirements”. This means numbers will be severely limited at papal events, tickets will be allocated centrally, and “not everyone who would like to go to a venue to see Pope Benedict will be able to do so”. The alternative offered is a “virtual visit”. But we can watch the Pope on television any time.

The message which the visit organisers are sending out – please pay for the events, but we’d rather you didn’t come to them – is not, I’m sure, the one they intend to communicate. But as a university chaplain seeking to foster excitement and interest in the papal trip among young people, it is disappointing to receive these deflating messages from the organisers. We have now been told that one young person per parish will be permitted to attend the youth event, when potentially dozens could.

We need a more positive approach. Instead of listing the problems, tell us about the opportunities. Let us hear why it is so good that the Pope is coming among us, how we can benefit from his visit, how we can contribute to its success (and not just financially). But the key message we need to hear is about how we can take part.

Sure, health and safety legislation has mushroomed since Pope John Paul II’s visit here in 1982. Of course there are security concerns and many logistical constraints. But we need the organisers to fight our case for massive turnout. And they need to be seen to be fighting. We need to see the organisers determined to ensure that vast numbers encounter the Pope in person, not just a small percentage of Catholics. Seeing and hearing him in the flesh, witnessing the simplicity and sincerity he radiates, is vital to the experience of a papal visit. Watching him on a small screen with a television presenter making him “accessible” just doesn’t come close.

And why just Catholics? The evangelising potential of this visit is enormous. When non-Catholics actually come in contact with the real Pope Benedict, and his real message, minds and hearts change.
When Peter was imprisoned, the early Church prayed for his release; and an angel liberated him. Why not invite Catholics to pray that we might be liberated from these modern chains, these human regulations, which threaten to keep us from the successor to St Peter? Would Peter and the other apostles have beaten back the crowds who came to hear Our Lord, citing “health and safety issues, security considerations and comfort requirements”?

Just as the Gospels constantly show the multitudes seeking contact with Christ, the Acts of the Apostles record how large crowds brought their sick to St Peter, “so that… some of his shadow might fall on some of them”. This has to be our faith today. Can we lay our sickness – mental, physical, psychological – in front of the television or computer screen? The Holy Father’s physical presence is what heals.

Numbers matter for other reasons. When Pope John Paul II died in 2005 what most struck the world was the sheer quantity of people who went to Rome for his funeral or to pray before his catafalque. The sight of the crowds sent shockwaves through secular-minded Europe. Britain needs to be similarly shocked. Only the sight of thousands upon thousands of people at the papal events can shake minds and hearts open. We need to stop Britain in its tracks. From my experience of World Youth Days and of John Paul II’s 1982 visit here, what amazes the non-believer are the good behaviour and cheerfulness of the crowds. But how can the crowds amaze people if they are never allowed to form? The cameras will be there if the people are there. This is the opportunity – the unmissable, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – to fix the Church’s tent in the public square. More than anything else, simple turn-out will assert the on-going relevance of faith in our society.

It is of particular concern that the youth event is limited to 3,000 participants. Every World Youth Day is a new Pentecost, a new explosion of the Spirit, as the Church unleashes on one more city that most powerful “weapon”: the life, energy and joy of her young people. Every colour, every charism is present. And the cities respond: I will never forget how people in Denver in 1993 lined the streets with words of welcome, gifts of water and bananas, and sprayed us with hose pipes to cool us down in the intense heat. Nor do priests forget the thousands of young people queueing for Confession during these events.

We must use that “weapon” here. “Do not stifle the Spirit,” says St Paul. A mere 3,000 – I repeat, one person per parish – is stifling. I was at Ninian Park, Cardiff, in 1982. We were 35,000 youngsters then, and we felt we could have done better. With less straitjacketing and more encouragement the many Catholic groups and chaplaincies working with young people in this country will know how to respond.

Good relations with our civil authorities are necessary both in general and for the success of this visit. But maybe we don’t need to be quite so chummy, polite and, well, English about this. Is a civil servant’s or police chief’s “no” really that final – with a bit of faith, conviction and pressure on our part, especially if backed up by the combined prayer of the British Catholic community?

We have to make the case that this is not just any public event. This is like nothing else on earth: not a rock concert or not a demonstration. Catholics would want to be squeezed together, hot and sweaty, if that’s what it takes to see the “sweet Christ on earth”, as St Catherine of Siena described the Roman Pontiff.

There is still time to turn the Pope’s visit into a historic success. But instead of a “don’t come” warning, we need a “come and see” invitation. Let’s find creative solutions that will permit massive attendance. Let the organisers and our church leaders push the civil authorities and, where necessary, let them speak out loudly and publicly – to kick up a fuss, to overcome whatever obstacles could keep British Catholics from having direct contact with their spiritual Father. He won’t come again.

Fr Joseph Evans is the Catholic chaplain to King’s College London