The Papal Visit 2010: A Perspective from the Diocese ofArgyll & the Isles

The 16th September 2010 turned out to be a day of great joy for the Catholic Church in Scotland, and for many other people of our country, as we welcomed, along with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, to our country, and in particular to the great cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Hundreds of people from across the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles travelled to both Edinburgh and Glasgow to witness the St. Ninian’s Day Parade and the passage of Pope Benedict through the streets of Edinburgh and the celebration of Holy Mass in the afternoon in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow.

For many it involved a long journey, some having to cross the Minch the day before and others leaving very early on Thursday morning from our more distant parishes, but everyone who went was thrilled to be part of this public celebration of our Catholic faith, and returned home happy to have seen the Holy Father and to have heard the words of encouragement he offered with regard to living our ancient faith (first brought to these shores by holy men like Sts Ninian and Columba) in the modern world.

We were all touched by his gracious presence and gentle smile and responded with real affection and gratitude to his inspiring words and warm gestures. We truly felt his presence among us brought God’s blessing and a great boost to us as a community of faith and as individuals striving to follow the Lord Jesus Christ as best we can today, inspired by the example of St Peter, St. Andrew, and the holy men and women who have faithfully served the Lord in Scotland through the last 1600 years.

I, as Bishop of the Diocese, was fortunate to be present at many of the events during the four days the Holy Father spent in the UK, but it is worth recording the part many others from the Diocese played in preparing for the Visit here in Scotland and in representing us at some of the English venues also. The Pope arrived in Edinburgh Airport, where he was welcomed by Prince Philip and then brought to meet the Queen at Holyrood Palace – I was among the crowd of invited guests who heard their exchange of greetings, which set the tone of welcome and appreciative acknowledge of both the strengths of the UK and the contribution of faith, and in particular the Catholic faith, to the lives of many in this country and across the world.

While the Pope was in Holyrood a great crowd of 125,000 people had lined the streets of Edinburgh to witness the St. Ninian’s Day Parade and to greet the Pope while he crossed the city from Holyrood to Cardinal O’Brien’s house at Greenhill Gardens. Sr Audrey Thomson was one of those who took part in the parade – dressed as the founder of her religious congregation, Blessed Mary MacKillop, soon to be canonized in Rome by Pope Benedict. Among those in Princes Street to wave to the Pope were the pupils of St. Columba’s Primary School, Oban, led by their head-teacher, Miss Sarah Jane MacSween.

Meanwhile at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow pilgrims were arriving from all over the country for the Papal Mass, which would begin at 5.15pm. The people from the Western Isles who had travelled to Glasgow over the preceding days gathered at St. Peter’s, Partick and then went by tube to Ibrox and from there walked to the park. The other parishes from across the Diocese travelled by bus and after parking on the M77 walked to their allotted zones in the Park – those from Skye had left earliest, at 6am, and they had been accompanied by a party of 22 pupils from Plockton High School.

In the Park the pre-event began at 1.30pm and included some live performances of singers and musicians, including a group of renowned Gaelic singers from the Western Isles, and some pre-recorded messages from school children from across Scotland, including St. Columba’s, Oban, welcoming Pope Benedict, and short recordings explaining the work of the varied agencies and associations which contribute to the work of the Catholic Church in Scotland. The comperes for these three hours were Cathy MacDonald, a well-known Gaelic broadcaster, and Fr Roddy Johnston, parish priest of St. John’s, Caol, and it is good to acknowledge also other friends in Gaelic broadcasting, especially Angela MacKinnon, Donald Campbell, and Donald Allan MacSween whose professional expertise helped put together this uplifting production.
From time to time through the afternoon Fr Michael Hutson, who together with Mgr Gerry Fitzpatrick had organised the music for the Papal Mass, led a singing practice thus giving the great crowd that had gathered the opportunity to hear and learn the parts of James MacMIllan’s Mass and some new hymns, one of which had been composed by Peter Rose(St. Margaret’s, Roy Bridge) and Anne Conlon in honour of Blessed Mary MacKillop.

In the choir tent there were 800 singers, who came from all the Scottish Dioceses, and had gathered with Mgr Gerry and Fr Michael the previous Saturday at Motherwell Cathedral for the final rehearsal for the Papal Mass. A number of fine musicians provided the musical accompaniment for the choir, including John Bell, an organist from St. Mary’s, Portree. A group of young Gaelic singers from Barra, Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist, led and conducted by Mrs Pauline MacDonald of St. Peter’s, Daliburgh, and had prepared and beautifully sang the Alleluia verse and the hymn Do Lamh a’Chriosda after communion, accompanied on the clarsach by Karen Elder.

In the last hour before Mass there was much activity on the great stage where Mass was to be celebrated as the Vatican MCs put the servers (the Scottish seminarians) and deacons through their paces. Among the deacons was David Connor of St. Mun’s, Dunoon, who sang the Gospel with reverence and composure. Our permanent deacon, Martin Matheson, was among the vested deacons and 16 priests of the Diocese either concelebrated the Mass or had other tasks to fulfil – a group of them were lucky enough to meet the Pope briefly at the end of Mass and received the gift of a rosary from him.

The Diocese had been allocated fifty invitations for special guests, and a good number of them accepted the invitation and were honoured to attend the Mass, seated in front of the stage. The people from the parish groups found their allocated places in the numbered zones and were able to see and greet the Pope as he toured the park before Mass began.

At the start of Mass it was lovely to hear Archbishop Conti in his welcome to the Holy Father mention St Columba and his monk companions and their holy island of Iona and for him to greet the Pope in Gaelic, Cead Mille Failte. It was even more edifying to hear Pope Benedict also  mention Columba and for him to speak a few words of Gaelic (prepared for him by Mgr James MacNeil) at the end of his homily:

“I am happy to assure you of my prayers in the ancient language of your country: Sith agus beannachd Dhe dhuibh uile; Dia bhi timcheall oirbh; agus gum beannaicheadh Dia Alba.
God’s peace and blessing to you all; God surround you; and may God bless the people of Scotland!”

One of the Prayers of the Faithful was also said in Gaelic by Donald Archie MacKinnon, a parishioner of St. Mary’s, Benbecula.

At the end of Mass people returned to their buses to face the long journey home, but very happy to have been present and to have celebrated Mass in such an uplifting and faith-filled way with the Holy Father here in Scotland. The Scottish and the English bishops present headed for Central Station and we travelled overnight on the sleeper to London. I

 was joined on the journey south by Fr John Paul MacKinnon, parish priest of Our Lady Star of the Sea, Castlebay, and two of his teenage parishioners, John James Galbraith and Karen Elder, who would accompany Fr John Paul on Friday morning to the Big Assembly at St. Mary’s College, Twickenham. Here they joined 4000 school pupils, including a large Scottish contingent representing every Catholic secondary school in Scotland. John James addressed the Pope in Gaelic and with two others presented him with a book on St. Columba. It was wonderful that John James and Karen were present representing all the young people of our Diocese and bringing him our good wishes and prayers. It had been hoped also that a couple of other young people would attend the Rally in Hyde Park on Saturday afternoon, but they were not able to do so, although a number of Scottish groups were present and their work acknowledged.

Fr MacKinnon stayed with me throughout the rest of the visit in London and Birmingham, and we were present at the Ecumenical Vespers in Westminster Abbey (where the Diocese was also represented by Judith Spellman, a parishioner of Our Lady Star of the Sea, Mull), the Mass on Saturday morning in Westminster Cathedral and the Hyde Park Rally in the afternoon.

We arrived in Birmingham very late on Saturday night but were up early the next morning to go to Cofton Park for the Mass of Beatification of Blessed John Henry Newman, followed by the lunch and final meeting of the bishops with Pope Benedict at Oscott College. Once the Pope had departed for Birmingham Airport the Bishops and their party were taken to the Oratory in Birmingham, where Newman had spent most of his priestly life. Here we were shown Blessed John Henry’s room and wonderful library, and then joined the Oratory Fathers and a large congregation for Solemn Vespers and a blessing with a relic of the newly beatified.

Our pilgrimage ended with a rather late dinner at which words of thanks and appreciation were offered by Archbishop Nichols and Cardinal O’Brien on behalf of the Church in England and Wales and Scotland, and by Sir Chris Patten on behalf of the British Government.

It was an honour for me to be present at so many of the Papal Liturgies and other gatherings and to hear Pope Benedict’s inspiring words on so many different topics and for such a variety of audiences. It has been good also to know that so many from the Diocese played a part in preparing for the Mass at Bellahouston, and so many people from the Diocese came to the Mass and have carried away with them some of the joy of such an uplifting occasion, which hopefully will sustain us, and all who shared in the visit through television, in our Christian faith and witness in the times ahead.

+ Joseph Toal
Bishop of Argyll & the Isles

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