Paul Vallely: We couldn't see very much. But we saw the Pope

Undeterred by media cynicism, the Catholic faithful flocked from miles around to see Pope Benedict XVI in the flesh

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At the Sermon on the Mount and every other great religious event in history there must have been people like me and the pilgrims of Coach A from St Mary's Cathedral in Newcastle: at the back, and not quite able to see.

But there was no doubt among this particular group of Catholics who travelled from England to Scotland to be present at the Pope's first Mass in Bellahouston Park in Glasgow of the historic nature of the occasion. This was not just the first official visit of a pope to Britain since the Reformation. It was the first papal state visit to a land which saw the arrival of Christianity long before the territory was divided into Scotland and England. This was a historic moment and they were pleased and honoured to be there. Even at the back.

The words of the Pope were difficult to hear, thanks to a combination of his heavy Germanic accent and the swooshing of the wind through the trees. But they got the drift that the essence of religion must be to prompt believers to look on every person as a brother and sister and be examples of their faith to the rest of the public.

It was very much what they had wanted to hear. The party had set out from Newcastle early in the morning, encumbered with folding chairs, hats and scarves, large bags filled with flasks, plastic bottles and provisions – burdens which got slowly heavier as they made the 45-minute trek from the ad-hoc coach park on the M77 into the papal venue.

As they travelled north they had exchanged experiences. "Don't expect anything as exciting as The Canterbury Tales," one quipped. Even so, each one had a personal story which, put together, told a very different account of the state of the Catholic Church than the one which has made such lurid headlines in recent times.

Take Peter Quinn of St Cuthbert's parish in North Shields. He is a member of the SVP, the Society of St Vincent de Paul, a low-profile organisation which provides one-to-one help for people in need – "the elderly, the sick, the housebound, single mums, anyone who's struggling a bit," he said. Last year members of the SVP put in a million hours of voluntary work across the UK.

Seated across the aisle of the coach was Moira Potts, a retired dance teacher and housewife. She works as a volunteer with the Catholic aid agency Cafod, through which Catholics last year gave £47m for the relief of international poverty. She supervises the collection of money from family fasting days in which the faithful donate the money saved from eating less.

"I started during the Ethiopian famine in 1984. At first I felt overwhelmed by the scale of it, but then Cardinal Hume said that if everybody does a little we can move mountains."

Many on the coach were retired teachers. Even more in the park were children from local Catholic schools. Some 2,300 of all the schools in the UK are Catholic, and the community, in addition to the taxes it pays, contributes an additional £200m in donations to the state system.

"What we try to teach in a Catholic school is the principle of loving your neighbour as yourself, which means showing concern for each other," said Peter Burbridge, at the back of the bus. He had just retired after 36 years at St Cuthbert's High School in Newcastle. What of the claim that faith schools are divisive? "They can be," he replied. "But they can also provide the glue which helps a community stick together."

At his old school there was a particularly high percentage of boys from Muslim, Sikh and other faiths. "There are many people who want something more than a bald secularism."

So how did Pope Benedict measure up to what the faithful had expected? The German pontiff descended the long staircase from the high Bellahouston altar to wild cheers and a sea of waving yellow and white papal flags. The Newcastle contingent cheered with enthusiasm.

"There are a lot of people who are frightened of the Catholic Church because they want to live their lives as they want," said Sheila Smith, a 75-year-old pilgrim who is one of a number of Christians always present at the little chapel in Tyneside's massive Metrocentre shopping complex. She is also a bereavement counsellor with the charity Cruse. "The Pope's key message is that people should be thinking of others before themselves. But we live in a society that encourages people to focus on themselves and they don't want to hear the church saying that they should be focusing on others. The Pope's message is a threat to their comfort zone."

The Pope had not mentioned child abuse. "There are people who have suffered immensely at the hands of Catholic priests," said Peter Burbridge. "But the Pope has done a lot to establish a policy of zero tolerance and is making every effort to clean up the situation. He has said so before and that seems a good response."

The little group helped one another pack their belongings and set off for a journey back to the coach which they knew would seem less arduous than it had on the way. They are a community who have over the years helped one another through various personal crises and bereavements.

"I think the Pope has come at exactly the right time," said Moira Potts. "There is so much negativity about in this country just now. We become so bound up with our own problems and perspectives. The Pope offers a message of hope. If people will listen with an open mind instead of judging him on sensational headlines. In a country where people are starting to feel a bit sorry for themselves he reminds us of something greater."

Even if you are stood at the back.

The red shoes

Until the 16th century, popes wore the deep red robes sported by Catholic cardinals. But Pope Pius V, a former Dominican, changed all that when he decided to keep his white robes. The tradition stuck, but somehow the shoes escaped the papacy's move towards a more monochromatic attire. Pope Benedict wears simple red leather slip-ons made by a Novara cobbler, Adriano Stefanelli.

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