Our day started at 6.45am. We thought this was rather early but later discovered it was nothing compared to some other groups. Seven of us gathered together at Clapham Junction to represent the Salesians of Don Bosco. All decked out in our official Papal tee-shirts and wristbands we trundled off to Victoria Station where we would join our first queue of the day to gain access to the piazza in front of Westminster Cathedral. We were soon engulfed by the diocese of Shrewsbury and Hexham and Newcastle who swiftly started chanting and singing, competing to see who was the loudest. They were even managing to wake some of the neighbours. When we got in to the piazza there was an amazing atmosphere of anticipation and joy; being there with 3,000 young people made our Salesian presence very special. We shared stories, laughter and even biscuits with the people around us. When Mass started the young people settled and were very reverent. Although most were freezing, sitting on the cold ground, no one complained. After Mass, Pope Benedict made his way to the back of the Cathedral to greet the young people and he exited to the most deafening roar imaginable: the atmosphere was electric! The Salesian group had managed to get very close to the front and were only about 15 feet from the Pope; we felt truly blessed to be so close.
The piazza then started moving out in to the streets where we were moved together around the front of Buckingham palace and up to Hyde Park Corner and in to Hyde Park. This was an amazing witness to the people of London. We were young people celebrating our faith and were a true witness of the love that young people have of their faith. During this we met up with many other Salesian groups, the Salesian College Farnborough walked behind our banner and the Brettargh Holt team were walking just in front.
After some lunch picnic style we were given new, sparkly, wrist bands and asked to make our way to the ‘Golden Circle’. To our utter amazement we were put in seats that were 12 rows from the front with the most amazing view of the stage and we knew we were in for a good view of the Pope when he arrived. The afternoon was very moving with a variety of different performances, reflective moments, testimonies and singing and went very quickly, but the highlight for our group was getting on the stage with the banner and being able to shake hands with the bishops of England and Wales. The young people said being able to see the size of the crowd was an unbelievable sight.
As the sun set the Holy Father arrived to lead us in a vigil of prayer and adoration. To be in a crowd of 80,000 people praying was certainly a moving experience. I’m sure the community back in Battersea could hear us sing. There were moments of complete silence and stillness which made the hair on the back of your neck stand on end: so many people, praying all at the same time, all for the same reason. The Vigil was definitely the highlight of the whole day. With the sun long gone the Pope had to depart but it was once again with the loudest cheer of a crowd who felt truly special to have witnessed a remarkable event.
Although we were only a small official Salesian group, the Salesian presence was spread among the crowd with Salesian Young People, Volunteers, Co-operators, SDBs, FMAs, Schools and Parishes, all joining other groups and diocese. In both the ‘Golden circle’ and in the main arena, Don Bosco was very much present not only on the stage but within the people. Our day was a day filled with much joy, love and hope for the future. It was a day that has given us lasting memories and a day which we will talk about for years to come.