London's Catholics rejoice as they pray with the pope
About 85,000 pilgrims attended an open-air prayer vigil in the centre of London on Saturday, organisers said, in the biggest event so far of Pope Benedict XVI's state visit to Britain.
Thousands knelt on the damp grass as dusk fell over Hyde Park to pray with the pope, in what for many was a chance to celebrate their faith in defiance of the controversies and protests that surrounded his four-day trip here.
"We're here to support the Catholic church. I want to put my hand up and say I'm Catholic and I'm proud of it," said Alison McGarr, 42, who came to the capital from Stockport, northwest England, with her husband, two daughters and her mother.
Referring to the protests that have greeted the pope's visit and the months of lurid headlines about the scandal over clerical sex abuse, she said: "It's been so negative, but I'm proud of today -- God's with us."
Before the service, the faithful gathered with rugs, chairs and picnics to pass the hours before the pope's arrival, sitting in the sunshine alongside thousands of their fellow believers -- a rare experience for many.
"It's pretty cool seeing this many Catholics in one place in England. We're not usually into publicly displaying our faith, so it's really nice," said Suzy Holloway, 25, who came with a group of friends from London.
"The atmosphere is almost like a festival."
There were young people everywhere -- one group of teenagers danced and sang "Benedicto -- we go where you go", waving flags and holding a banner saying "Welcome Holy Father".
Another group had their faces painted in the white and yellow of the Vatican flag, holding up banners saying: "We are with you 100 percent Papa!"
John McKay was 17 years old when he saw the last pope, John Paul II, visit Britain in 1982. Now 44, he came to Hyde Park with two of his four daughters.
"I've come with my children because I want them to understand what my faith is about," he said. "I'll never forget seeing John Paul, and although this pope isn't as charismatic, he's won our hearts this week."
The pope's trip to Britain, which began in Edinburgh and Glasgow on Thursday and will end with an open-air mass in the central English city of Birmingham on Sunday, has been marred by the row over clerical child abuse.
He met with five British victims of abuse on Saturday, and many Catholics here praised his leadership in the crisis.
"When it comes down to it, he's doing the best he can with a hard job. And with this trip, he's bringing people together," said Irene Supka, 73, from Hackney in east London.
After the service ended, there was huge roar of applause and the crowd waved flags at the pope as he walked off the stage.
"I was really moved by it, and I was moved to tears by some of it. 80,000 Catholics and the pope praying -- it was an incredible moment," said one visibly excited teenage girl, Niamh.
© 2010 AFP