Friday, 17 September 2010

The Big Assembly.

An exhausting, but ultimately incredibly rewarding day for the University as it hosted the Pope for the morning. Most local residents were woken early by the hovering helicopters that made their first appearance of the day at six. I turned on the radio to hear our outgoing principal Arthur Naylor do the first of several interviews before heading over to Patsy's for live coverage on the BBC news channel.

It was the weirdest experience. A split screen of the Papal Nuncio in Wimbledon and our running track where thousands of children had gathered and were being warmed up by a charismatic choir leader and a Blue Peter presenter. Meanwhile an alternative view of events came via a regular exchange of texts with Trevor, sitting behind School's Minister Michael Gove in the VIP section.

Predictably it all ran a bit later than planned, but slightly before eleven his holiness arrived on campus and stepped out onto the piazza. It was absolutely extraordinary to watch as he slowly walked round blessing some of the children, shook hands with Arthur, David Leen and Father Gerry, who ushered him into the chapel for a short service and the presentation to St Mary's of a painting of the Virgin.

And then off to the big assembly and a rapturous reception from the kids, who'd been in situ for hours. Siobhan welcomed him. There was singing, a live link up with a school in Gambia and prayers, before finally Benedict delivered a short sermon in which he called on the young people to be the Saints of the 21st century. God, he suggested, is central to living a good life

His words were a simplified form of the key message of the visit, which seems to be to warn the United Kingdom that it's slipping into a dangerous and aggressive atheism. Although I disagree with the premise that religion guarantees you a moral compass and sense of empathy; I'm pleased at the coverage he's being given. The suggestion that faith is central to social cohesion and that fulfilment can't be found without belief is difficult to swallow, but at least his pre-emptive words will offer a chance to debate the value of secularism.

Another short trip in the Papal carrier round to the Waldegrave Drawing Room and an exchange of greetings with leaders of other faith groups, before he slipped out of the back and headed for home, for a brief nap before his big speech in Westminster this evening.

It took a couple further hours before non accredited staff could get back to work, but when I returned late this afternoon, the get out in full flow, the relief that all had gone well was palpable. Beams and handshakes all round. Barry, head of security, was delighted that operations had gone so smoothly. I offered congratulations.

'Nobody even spotted the sniper teams!' he said glowing with pride.

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