They gathered in their thousands, sheltering from a steady drizzle under a forest of umbrellas and plastic ponchos. But when Pope Benedict XVI finally appeared in Birmingham's Cofton Park yesterday, the heavens sent sunlight streaming down on to the beatification Mass of Cardinal John Henry Newman. The service was billed as the climax to the Pope's four-day state visit – a spiritual end to a trip that has seen him apologise for the clerical abuse scandals, warn against the dangers of secularism and protest at the "marginalisation of faith" in Britain.
For the Catholic Church, it was an opportunity to wave goodbye to its leader and celebrate one of its most profound modern thinkers. Cardinal Newman is now all but guaranteed to become the first non-martyred British saint since 1401. Standing in front of a crowd of 55,000 worshippers, the Pope used his homily to reflect on his own past as he commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and the defeat of the Luftwaffe.
"For me as one who lived and suffered through the dark days of the Nazi regime in Germany, it is deeply moving to be here with you on this occasion, and to recall how many of your fellow citizens sacrificed their lives courageously resisting the forces of that evil ideology," he said.
The Pope's comments referred to his experiences in the Second World War, when he was forced to join the Hitler Youth, although he later deserted. It was the second time the pontiff had referred to Nazism during his trip.
Given the timing of the 10am Mass, most of the pilgrims were forced to travel through the night, trudging the last mile from their coaches on foot under a cold drizzle. Many had been waiting in the park since 4am. But despite the gloom, the mood among the pilgrims was jubilant as they prepared to bid farewell to the Pope.
For Nina Watson, 52, a university admissions worker from Streatham, south London, the beatification held particular significance. Like Cardinal Newman, she converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism after a long period of deliberation and concern over the direction of the Church of England. "It was a painful and difficult decision but like Newman I got to the stage where I felt I had no choice," she said. "There were things missing and I didn't feel a call to holiness in the Anglican Church. Since my conversion, I've never been so happy and at peace."
Yesterday's crowd had an international flavour. At times it seemed there were almost as many Polish flags fluttering in the breeze as all the other nationalities combined. Beata Szczepanowska, 26, a recent graduate in Celtic studies from Aberystwyth University in Wales, was wearing both a Welsh flag and a Polish flag, one across each shoulder.
"I saw John Paul II in Poland and it has been wonderful to see Pope Benedict here," she said. "I am so pleased with the warmth of the reception he has received in this country."
Edmund Etorma, 40, and his family left their home in Burton-upon-Trent at 2am to make it to Birmingham. "This is a once in a lifetime experience," the father-of-two beamed. "To be a Roman Catholic and see the Pope in person, it's difficult to put into words how important that is."
Families like the Etormas, originally from the Philippines, have helped the Catholic Church in Britain grow over the past 10 years despite the "aggressive secularism" that has the Pope so concerned. In that time, the number of regular Mass-going Catholics has risen from 800,000 to 1.1 million, largely thanks to the influx of Catholic Poles, Filipinos and East Africans.
Many worshippers said that the Pope had been treated unfairly by the media and the Vatican's critics. Niamh Moloney, 24, a Catholic youth worker from Northampton, was walking through the park with a banner proclaiming: "Give it some welly for Pope in the Park."
"We wanted to make some joyful noise because there had been so much negative coverage," she said, adding that the thousands of young people like her who turned out for the Pope's Masses showed how he was still relevant to younger generations.
In the afternoon, the Pope's entourage moved to Birmingham Oratory, a congregation that was founded by Newman in 1848. Benedict, a staunch supporter of Newman's cause, prayed in the cardinal's private chapel before moving on to Oscott College to bid farewell to his British bishops.
In a final nod towards the clerical child sex abuse scandal, the pontiff praised Church authorities for implementing "serious steps ... to ensure that children are effectively protected from harm," suggesting that the Church could help "share the lessons" of dealing with sex abuse.
Catholic views: A remarkable occasion – and a time for reflection
Philip Hoare, writer
To see a figure of such stature and anachronism presiding inside an overgrown fish tank was certainly unusual but the Pope's visit has been remarkable. He has been the spearhead of a monolithic organisation which usually moves with glacial slowness and by coming here he has made me question what I truly believe about British Catholicism. I'm even prepared to admit the anti-Pope protesters have been brilliant.
Helena Kennedy QC
It was fantastic to see the Popemobile passing through – it was a wonderful scene of people coming together and an opportunity for real reflection. The Catholic Church's position on homosexuality and condoms is inhuman and wrong, and possibly contrary to human rights, but it doesn't stop Catholics hanging on to their own faith. It's fine that people protest, but nothing makes me feel more like a Catholic than hearing Ian Paisley shouting about the Pope.
John Cornwell, writer
The large Masses were comparable to rallies in their visual impact. It was an extraordinary occasion, but one thing that struck me as a Catholic was the contrast between the service in Westminster Abbey and the others. In the Abbey, there were church leaders from Christian denominations, and women priests as well. But at the Cathedral and at the Mass, the sanctuaries were filled with male clergymen.Reuse content