BRITAIN’S historic papal visit came to an end yesterday as Benedict XVI gave a final wave from the steps of his plane.
The pontiff boarded his specially -prepared plane at Birmingham Airport on a windy evening after thanking the nation for its hospitality.
In speeches to a small crowd of dignitaries on the airport’s apron, both he and Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to strengthen relationships between Britain and the Vatican.
The hustle and bustle of the airport continued throughout the day, with holiday-makers oblivious to the frantic behind-the-scenes preparations for the Pontiff’s departure.
Hours before his arrival, police and officials swarmed round the Alitalia plane, checking every detail, while officials practised “walk- throughs” on a specially-laid cross-shaped red carpet.
The faithful hoping to catch one last view of the Pope had been warned to stay away, but holidaymakers may have managed to grab a glance from their planes as commercial airlines continued to take off and land.
A year’s planning by the British Foreign Office came to its climax as the Pope swept onto the airport apron in a BMW, to be greeted by the Lord Lieutenant of the West Midlands and the Lord Chamberlain.
Rain held off during an earlier beatification ceremony at Cofton Park and stayed away as the Pontiff was greeted by cardinals and other senior British and Vatican Catholic figures.
But his traditional white skullcap was held by personal secretary Georg Ganswein as gusts of wind threatened to blow it off.
Speaking from a specially-prepared dais as a helicopter hovered overhead, Mr Cameron paid tribute to the Pope for challenging Britain to “sit up and think”.
He said he had shown faith was still “a vital part of our national conversation”.
“Faith is part of the fabric of our country. It always has been and it always will be,” Mr Cameron said.
“As you, your Holiness, have said, faith is not a problem for legislators to solve but rather a vital part of our national conversation. And we are proud of that.
“You have really challenged the whole country to sit up and think, and that can only be a good thing.
“Because I believe we can all share in your message of working for the common good and that we all have a social obligation to each other, to our families and our communities.”
He said he and the Pontiff had agreed to develop co-operation on “key international issues” including climate change, peace and fighting poverty and disease.
Mr Cameron told the Pope his presence had been an honour for Britain, adding: “When you think of our country, think of it as one that not only cherishes faith, but one that is deeply, but quietly, compassionate.”
In his response Benedict XVI thanked the nation for its hospitality.
Addressing dignitaries including Francis Campbell, British ambassador to the Holy See, and Lord Patten, who organised the historic visit, the Pontiff said: “During my time with you, I have been able to meet representatives of the many communities, cultures, languages and religions that make up British society.
“The very diversity of modern Britain is a challenge to its government and people, but it also represents a great opportunity to further intercultural and inter-religious dialogue for the enrichment of the entire community.”
He said he had enjoyed sharing thoughts with church leaders on “the contribution that the religions can offer to the development of a healthy pluralistic society”.
The two distinctive Popemobiles are set to be driven back to the Vatican in transporters over the next few days, but for the Pontiff himself his speech was to mark the end of the four-day visit before a two and three-quarter-hour flight back to Ciampino.
He said these final words: “As I take my leave of you, let me assure you once again of my good wishes and prayers for the peace and prosperity of Great Britain. Thank you very much and God bless you all,” before being led down the red carpet to his plane by Mr Cameron and Lord Chamberlain the Earl Peel.
The Pontiff paused at the top of the stairs to wave with both hands and bow, bidding farewell to the nation.
He was given a round of applause as the plane, sporting a Union Jack and the flag of the Holy See, departed, taking the Papal party back to Rome.
Speaking after the momentous occasion Lord Patten said: “I think it’s been a huge success; four days which have gone better and better.
“It began with a marvellous welcome in Edinburgh and we have been on a roll ever since. It’s been historic ever since.
“I think it’s demonstrated yet again that when people meet the Pope they realise what a warm and loveable person he is.
“And I think perhaps most important of all it’s demonstrated how much faith matters to so many people in this country, not just to Catholics but to people of all religions.”
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