BEHIND the spiritual content of every pilgrimage lies the hard slog of travel. And so Pope John Paul's journey to Britain, in every sense a gigantic crossing of frontiers, breaks down in retrospect into a series of physical events, often tiny, yet each of immense spiritual symbolism too.
For the nearest approximation my mind goes back a few days, when something had happened to the usual rush-hour crowd bustling from the Sloane Square Underground. There were more of them; and they looked different. Their habitual tense abstraction was gone, smoothed out into placidity and smiles; for once they were actually happy. And why? They were the gardening fans heading for the Chelsea Flower Show.
The papal visit has produced the same transformation, only enormously magnified. In cathedrals, on football-fields and piazzas, in the flesh and on television, on the faces of policemen, parents, priests. children, nuns — millions of smiles of pure, disinterested happiness. A mass happiness unmarred by mass hysteria, its source was goodness and love on the visitor's side, and some immense and mysterious longing on the British side. And how many times the smile of the millions was mirrored in their guest, creasing into radiance a face already etched by physical and spiritual pain and selfimposed exhaustion.
Yet more than once that smile held an element of delighted bewilderment — at Canterbtfry perhaps at the unexpectedly surviving Catholicism of the ancient Benedictine foundation, in Scotland at the beauty and candour of the welcoming children. "No one told me it would be like this", it often seemed to say. A narrow squeak indeed, one sensed — those who had ever contemplated calling the trip off would soon be hearing about it!
And always the children, straight out of scripture. Against the Canterbury backdrop they had run to keep up with him, a Lowry picture come to life, leggy and touching. Their instant twoway affection impressed even case-hardened commentators — "If you're after the Pope, just hold out a baby". "Well, they like him — he's got such a nice face."
As indeed he has. Unexpectedly my wife and I were to see it close up. For by an apparent miracle we received Communion from his hand. Once, for almost a year, events had denied us Sacrament together. So to receive it side by side again has since meant everything to us. Often it is in our own parish church, from the same young priest who, on that marvellous pre-Pentecostal day, was coincidentally only a few yards from us in the great cathedral, one of those distributing the Host to the vast congregation. Heaven knows that, from hirri or our Pope, the Sacrament is always the same an absolute; you can't improve on it. Yet for the two of us to have received it together, from this phenomenal priest of God on so climactic an occasion, had somehow made it the happiest of the great days of our life together.