The Papal Mass at Cofton Park, Birmingham 19 September 2010
By Eileen and Gerry Harber
In the months before the Pope’s visit we had mixed feelings about whether we should attend one of the public Masses or events: they were all far away; there was little information about them; the Pope seemed a distant figure lacking the charisma of his predecessor John Paul II and the media were full of negative stories about the church. However, when parishioners were invited in a letter from Bishop Seamus to apply for seated positions at each of the events, and take up from the parish seemed low, we decided to apply for seats at the Beatification Mass in the Midlands, even though we did not even know at that stage where it was to take place. We moved to Morpeth from Coventry in 1978 so felt a link to that venue (Coventry Airport was the suggested site at that time). In early August our invitation duly arrived – it seems that take up was low throughout the Diocese so practically everyone who applied received an invitation. We sent off the required security information and waited for the final details. These arrived just over a week beforehand, giving us the venue for the Mass – Cofton Park in the suburbs of Birmingham – and a place to present ourselves for security clearance and time: between 4.30 a.m. and 6 a.m. for 10 o’clock Mass! So we booked a room in a nearby Premier Inn and drove down the day before – Saturday.
On Sunday morning we rose at 3.15, dressed smartly (as instructed in the invitation) and made our way to the meeting point. At 4.15 we joined a queue of cars waiting to be admitted. The gates opened promptly and we were soon parked and making our way to accreditation to receive our ‘Pilgrim Pack’ including the vital wrist band identifying us as ‘Invited Pilgrims’ (IPs). A shuttle coach took us the few miles to the MG factory near Cofton Park from where we walked to our places. As IPs we were in the seating at the front of the congregation and found seats in row P (16th row from the front) quite central to the Altar. It was 5 a.m. – still dark and spitting with light rain which continued until nearly 10. So we put on our waterproof jackets (umbrellas not allowed in the IP area) and Eileen even put the plastic cape provided in the Pilgrim Pack on top, Gerry used his on his knees to keep his trousers dry. The first thing we did was to have some breakfast – we had taken sandwiches and a flask of hot water. Then we waited, chatting and reading about John Henry Newman and the ceremonies we were to participate in. From about 8 a.m. until 9 the BBC Sunday Worship programme was broadcast from the stage, which was separate from the Sanctuary where the Altar was in front of us and was out of our direct view but we could see everything on two large screens on either side. The service comprised hymns, accompanied mainly on guitars, readings and prayers and made a good preparation for the Mass.
At 9 o’clock we had a coffee then settled down to await the arrival of the Pope. Again we were shown on the screens his departure by helicopter from London, then the helicopter circled the Park, much to the excitement of all the Pilgrims (over 50,000 of them) especially the younger ones who were behind us. Some of them had been at the events in London and come up by coach overnight, arriving at about 3 a.m. and crashing out in sleeping bags and bivvy bags to catch up on so much lost sleep. Then the screens showed us his arrival in Birmingham and official welcome before he got into his car, and followed the convoy through the streets towards Cofton Park. Finally, the ‘Popemobile’ appeared with His Holiness inside and toured the Park before disappearing behind the Sanctuary. The noise of the crowd cheering and clapping showed a real love for the Holy Father among all the faithful who were gathered there.
Then came the start of Mass – with organ and orchestra to accompany the hymns and great choirs to lead the singing. The rain had stopped and the sun shone intermittently, bringing warmth to the crowd. On the Sanctuary were many cardinals and bishops and on each side hundreds of priests concelebrating with the Pope – perhaps 700 to 800 altogether. The Gospel was read by Deacon Jack Sullivan, whose healing from a crippling spinal condition after prayers to Cardinal Newman opened the way for his beatification. The whole congregation participated most reverently in the Mass: at the times of silence one could hear a pin drop – not a word spoken among those tens of thousands of people, but the responses to the Mass and singing of hymns was in full voice. Before the start of the Mass itself, the Pope declared Newman ‘Blessed’ and a picture of him was unveiled behind the altar. Some of Newman’s relatives and Oratorians from the Oratory he founded were presented to the Pope and he greeted them all warmly. The Pope’s frailty was obvious, but nevertheless the messages of his talk about Cardinal Newman and in his homily were strong and clear. In all that he said during his visit he had answered his critics and won the hearts of the Catholic community. Although the Mass lasted nearly two hours, it seemed to finish all too soon and the Holy Father left after greeting some of those who had shared the Altar with him.
We stayed on for a short while – had a picnic lunch and enjoyed the songs coming from a group from one of the local schools on the stage. Then it was back to the shuttle coach for transfer to our car park and the long journey home.
Our lasting impressions? A beautiful and very spiritual occasion which we felt truly honoured to have participated in. A fantastic degree of organisation, with the infrastructure for the Park itself, the arrangement of the liturgies, the provision of music, the timing down to the minute, the stewards who showed us where to go and coaches to transport us – it was a phenomenal success. All our criticisms of the seeming lack of organisation before the visit were replaced by admiration of all that had been done to make the Pope’s visit such a success. And the rapport that he had established, particularly with the young pilgrims was like a transformation: no longer was he the distant theologian, he had become the people’s Pope. We pray that his messages, particularly about the vital place that religion and Christianity in particular has to play in our society will bear fruit in the years and decades ahead.
Eileen and Gerry enjoy their picnic lunch after Mass:
The crowds assemble in the rain before Mass: