- Benedict XVI - Catholic Church - UK
Pope beatifies Anglican convert on last leg of UK visit
Pope Benedict XVI beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman, a 19th century Anglican convert, during an open-air Mass in Birmingham on Sunday, marking the last stage of his historic state visit to Britain.
AFP - Thousands of pilgrims gathered in a soggy English park on Sunday to catch a glimpse of Pope Benedict XVI and take part in the beatification of a local Catholic hero.
An estimated 55,000 people, many of whom arrived at Birmingham's Cofton Park in pre-dawn drizzle, attended the mass for Cardinal John Henry Newman, an Anglican convert whose legacy still has a profound religious impact in the city.
There were huge cheers as the pontiff's helicopter touched down in the central English city after his flight from London.
"I'm a practising Catholic. It's fantastic to see our Holy Father visit us in our country. It's an affirmation of how strong the Catholic Church is here," said Rob Lyng, 47, from Birmingham.
"John Henry Newman was always a part of our teachings from a very early age. It's central to a lot of people in Birmingham," said the bus company director, who watched the mass clutching a mug of coffee.
Many of the faithful had travelled through the night and arrived before daybreak, braving early rain to attend the spiritual highlight of the pope's four-day state visit to Britain which ends Sunday.
The mass had a more intimate feel than the outdoor events earlier in the trip in Glasgow and London, with pilgrims able to stand close to the vast, raised, white altar.
The ground was soggy underfoot but the sun broke out as the pontiff arrived in his popemobile, waving to the faithful and stopping to bless a baby as Vatican flags and others from around Britain and the world fluttered in the air.
According to Lyng, the 83-year-old pontiff has won over his critics with repeated expressions of remorse over the paedophile priest crisis engulfing the Church.
"I think the visit's been a revelation. There was so much criticism at the beginning.
"Lots of issues in the Catholic Church need addressing today. Let's hope Pope Benedict has the wisdom and strength to meet the challenges."
Lyng said the mixture of young and old pilgrims in Cofton Park showed the church was thriving.
"The visit's taken centre stage. This country has stopped for three days. No other faith could do that," he said. "You do get a glow."
Three youngsters waved placards reading "Papa, we are with you 100 percent" and "Pope, we love you more than beans on toast". One wore a sweatshirt emblazoned with the slogan "Catholic and proud".
They said they had followed Pope Benedict everywhere on his visit, declaring themselves "unofficial members of the papal entourage".
"It was a very successful visit. There was a lot of bad press before he came, but since Glasgow he won over everyone," said 19-year-old Londoner Brandon.
"We wanted the pope to see our message, and today he's seen it. We are delighted."
Many pilgrims wore rubber boots and waterproofs and pitched their fold-up chairs on the soft turf.
Helena Kerry and her mother Sheila were among an eight-strong group from their church in Mansfield, central England, who set off at 2:00 am, eight hours before the mass started.
"It's exhilarating. It's a great opportunity to see the pope," the 34-year-old said, rubbing her gloved hands together to keep warm.
"I'm excited about seeing him. It's amazing. We could have stayed at home and watched it on television in our church but it wouldn't have been the same. It's the chance of a lifetime."
Michael Slemensek, who came from outside Birmingham to attend with his teenage son, said: "It's a hugely important event for us. It's important to share the beatification by being here."
On the pope's repeated expressions of sorrow for the clerical abuse scandal, he added: "We were pleased by the message of the pope -- there is human frailty but that the Catholic Church can overcome that.
"The Catholic Church has to acknowledge that there were abuses that went on, that was terrible. But it shouldn't overtake all the Catholic belief."