THOUSANDS of people this week flocked to Westminster Cathedral to honour Pope John Paul II.
On Monday, the cathedral held Solemn Vespers of the Dead to mark the end of one of the great pontificates of history. Not only Catholics but also Christians of other denominations, members of different faiths, and even those with no faith at all came to the cathedral to pay their respects to the late Pope.
Some 3,000 people were at the service, patiently queueing on the piazza, where 23 years ago the former Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Basil Hume, had welcomed Pope John Paul to the cathedral.
The huge congregation included many dignitaries. The Prince of Wales came on behalf of the Royal family with his fiancée, Camilla Parker Bowles.
The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, attended with his Catholic wife, Cherie, who was wearing the black mantilla she wore when the Blair family had a private audience with the Pope two years ago. Sitting close to the Blairs were Michael Howard, leader of the Conservative Party, and Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrat Party.
Two former prime ministers, Lady Thatcher and John Major, were also among the worshippers, along with Chancellor Gordon Brown, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Health Secretary John Reid, and the devout Catholic Education Secretary Ruth Kelly.
The service was notable for its ecumenical emphasis. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, read from the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians, while members of other Christian churches read out petitions. Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist representatives attended to show their admiration for the third longestserving pope in history.
As always, the cathedral struck the right balance between ceremony and informality. The mood was solemn, but not stiff, sombre, but not stuffy. Scruffily dressed members of the public were not turned away but welcomed and even ushered in towards the front and seated alongside besuited guests of honour. This was no time for pomposity. It was an atmosphere that reflected the personality and life of Pope John Paul: piety mixed with joy and humour.
The Vespers service was simple. Hymns, psalms, and prayers were sung by the congregation, interspersed with Dr Williams’s reading and a sermon from Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.
Reflecting on the Pope’s life, the Cardinal, who left for Rome that evening, described him as “one of the great Christian figures of our time”.
He said: “This was an epic papacy, which shall be remembered always for the remarkable strength of character and persistence with which Pope John Paul proclaimed the values of the Kingdom of God.” The Cardinal revealed that the overwhelming public response to the death of the Pope had moved him deeply.
He said: “We are here to pray for the soul of a great Christian, a great leader, Pope John Paul II.” He argued that the Pope should not be pigeonholed as a radical or a conservative, Left or Right: “He was too big for those categories because, simply, he preached Christ crucified and risen, and all that flowed from that magnificent fact: the indestructible dignity of human beings created by God.” This was the last tribute the Cardinal would make in England before the appointment of a new Pontiff. He will be in Rome until Pope John Paul’s successor is chosen.
Upon hearing of the Pope’s death on Saturday night, the visiblymoved Archbishop of Westminster made an immediate statement on television. “His was a light that burned most strongly wherever the darkness was deepest,” he said. “The Church will miss him. The world will miss him. And I will miss him.” Towards the end of the Vespers, the congregation sang Salve Regina, the Marian antiphon, a perfect prayer for a pope who held the Mother of God so close to his heart.
With the Vespers ended, most of the congregation shuffled towards the main exit, brushing past an equally large crowd, which had waited quietly outside throughout, and now moved inside to pay its respects to the Holy Father.
Others headed for the Holy Souls Chapel, where a large, framed picture of the Pope was surrounded by great bunches of flowers. Many lit candles before the shrine and wrote entries for the book of condolences. One elderly lady seemed unable to fit all her gratitude to the Pontiff on to a whole A4 page.
Outside, the mood was buoyant. The crowd shook hands and conversed freely with the priests and bishops of the cathedral.
Margaret Brennan, a Catholic standing in the piazza, said the service had shown how the Pope attracted non-believers to the faith. “We really feel that this huge response to the Pope’s death could be the start of a resurrection of the Church,” she said.
“People can see that he had the light of Christ in his life, and they are drawn to it. This could be what we have prayed for for so long.” Mgr Mark Langham, administrator of the cathedral, said he was overwhelmed by the response of the British people to the death and by the numbers and diversity of those attending. “When the Pope died we first wanted to do a Requiem Mass to pray for him, and that was for the Catholic community,” he said. “Today it was important to do something on an ecumenical and national scale because of the Pope’s significance as a world leader.” Sunday’s Requiem Mass, held within 13 hours of the Pope’s death, drew an equally large crowd. Cathedral staff handed out hundreds of photographs of Pope John Paul, but such was the demand that the supply soon ran out.
At the end of the Mass the choir of the cathedral sang the haunting In Paradisum from the funeral liturgy: “May the angels lead you into Paradise, may the martyrs receive you and take you into the Holy City of Jerusalem.” Leaving the cathedral, Beatrice Speir, a young woman, said: “I found it a deeply moving experience. It was wonderfully calm. The Pope will be terribly missed by everyone here, but the atmosphere is not really one of grief – it is rather serene and peaceful.
“In all our lives, we should remember how he lived, and in our deaths we should remember how he died.” In Scotland Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, paid his own tribute. “It is with great sadness that I greet the death of Pope John Paul II,” he said.
“The late Pope was a man who was on the centre of the world’s stage for over a quarter of a century; and for almost every day of that time his influence was being felt in some way or another, in some part of the world.”