By Liezel Longboan
Pope Benedict XVI’s recent visit to the United Kingdom proved more meaningful to me as a Filipino and as a Catholic than I had initially expected.
While Britain is a predominantly Christian country, I realized during my first Christmas in 2007 that here, religion is an individual matter.
One of my most vivid memories as a student was the utter silence on Christmas day; the streets were completely empty it felt almost surreal. I later on learned that for the British, Christmas day is an intimate family gathering more than a time for celebrating with relatives and friends as we do in the Philippines.
But Christianity is deeply rooted in the complex and sometimes bloody formation of the United Kingdom as a state. Religion’s divisive role during the Reformation and its brutal aftermath is said to be one of the reasons why Britain has turned into a secular society.
Weeks before the papal visit, the media played up the issue of child sex abuses committed by the clergy in different parts of the world, particularly in the US, Ireland, Germany, and Belgium and the Pope’s role in investigating these cases.
Most of the coverage focused on the Catholic Church’s apparent failure to discipline hundreds, if not thousands, of its erring priests. Despite the critical reports, the media also conveyed a sense of anticipation and excitement among the British public as the papal visit drew closer.
On Saturday morning, I joined a group of 32 pilgrims from St. Peter’s Parish in Cardiff for the papal visit at Hyde Park in London.
As we stood to have our photo taken with Father Michael McCarthy after his blessing, I saw that there were six of us representing various nationalities: myself, a lay minister from Hongkong, an MBA student from India, a housewife from Uganda and two friends from Burundi. The rest were mostly middle-aged British parishioners who were as keen as us to see the Pope.
The vigil Mass was truly multicultural as predicted: I heard at least five languages being spoken as we queued to enter the vigil grounds. Apart from the array of colorful costumes and national flags being waved, the ubiquitous bright yellow pilgrim pack dominated the scene.
Cardiff University MBA student Sony Varghese was the most excited among all of us in the group. “When I heard that the Pope was coming to England, I knew I had to see him,” he said. An active member of his parish back home in Kerala, India, he believes that despite all the controversies surrounding Pope Benedict, “It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see him in person.”
There were Filipinos in small and big groups, some with flags and many without. They usually sat close together on their picnic cloths with their bags of food in the middle.
Marlin Iporong, a Filipino nurse at Chiltern Hospital in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, was with her two teenage children and Filipino friends and colleagues. They were part of 78 pilgrims from the Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish.
“This is a historic visit by the Pope here in England. I want my children to take part in this experience even if they didn’t want to. I had the chance to see Pope John Paul II in Manila in 1995 and I’d also like my kids to have that chance to see the Pope today,” she said.
Mercy Dillon, 35, was by her holding a Philippine flag and sitting on a picnic chair when I saw her. She and her friend, Anne, and her son were the only Filipinos in their group from St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in West Yorkshire, about four to five hours’ drive from London.
“I really wanted to see Pope Benedict because I failed to see Pope John Paul in 1995,” said Dillon.
She was then a third year nursing student in Dumaguete, she explained. A nurse at the Bradford Royal Infirmary and married to an Irish-Scottish fellow nurse, Dillon was also attending the beatification of Cardinal Henry John Newman the following day in Birmingham.
Rejoining my parish group, I was surprised to meet Michael Blythe, a recent Physics graduate from the University of Bath, sitting with the group. He was able to get a ticket from a priest friend and came alone to see the Pope.
“It’s not fashionable to talk about religion,” he admitted. A baptized Catholic, he does not consider himself a practicing one but he thinks “it’s important to have something to guide you in your actions.”
Around 80,000 gathered that evening at Hyde Park without counting the big crowd that welcomed the Pope along the streets of London. The vigil felt like Christmas in both the Filipino and British way: festive yet restrained, communal yet private.
Despite the sex abuse scandals, we were all there to show Pope Benedict that religion is not a “purely private” matter to a Church that is changing and growing for the better.