There was a sense of unity at the Protest the Pope march in London on Saturday, which is no mean feat considering there were around 10,000 individuals, many of them defined by different beliefs, lifestyles, religions and creeds.
I arrived by Tube, slightly concerned about getting myself arrested (never a good thing for a first week in a new job), and trying to avoid ‘death by pilgrims’ (the seemingly endless stream of Pope fans that stopped the traffic at Hyde Park Corner on their way to a mass in the park). The pilgrims, complete with yellow ‘pilgrim packs’ on their backs, walked with purpose, and I wondered how the anti-Pope protesters were going to measure up. We would likely lack the religious fervour and all-round excitement that had led some pilgrims to declare His Holiness ‘the true X Factor’.
My initial fears were confirmed… we were a motley crew loitering around the Tube station looking decidedly unsure and coy.
But not long after, some people who looked organised arrived – the voluntary groups. Unlike me, who had only remembered to bring my Oyster card, a packet of wine gums and a heart full of injustice, these groups had placards, banners and t-shirts, as well as the spirit needed to lift the mood.
Within minutes, congregations (excuse the pun) of voluntary groups, along with members of the public, had gathered. I saw the National Secular Society, Amnesty International, Women Against Fundamentalism, the British Humanist Association, Stonewall, Southall Black Sisters, Catholic Women’s Ordination, The Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association, the International Humanist and Ethical Union and many, many more.
And within 20 minutes, the numbers were swelling all around the grand gates of Hyde Park. The small groups became crowds; the murmurs of misgivings about the Pope became chants on a megaphone; and all of a sudden, we had found our mojo.
When you are in a crowd that grows in size that quickly, it is almost impossible to gauge its size. However, there’s a feeling that sweeps through each individual; the magic of mass protest. It’s as if we were all cells that become connected by neurons of shared belief, transforming us into one powerful, functioning entity.
After a long wait, which only served to psych up the crowd further, we began the well-trodden route towards Trafalgar Square.
The human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell had told me in an email before the event that the reasons behind the march were varied: “Pope Benedict XVI says women are unfit to be priests, childless couples should be denied fertility treatment and potentially life-saving embryonic stem cell research ought to be banned.
“The Pope insists that rape victims should be denied an abortion, using condoms to stop the spread of HIV is immoral and gay people are not entitled to equal human rights. On all these issues, Benedict is out of step with the majority of British people, including many Catholics.
“Most shockingly, the Pope is accused of covering up child sex abuse by clergy. In 2001, he wrote to every Catholic bishop in the world, ordering them to report all child sex abuse cases to him in Rome. They did. He therefore cannot claim that he was unaware of sex abuse. Moreover, his letter to the bishops demanded that they observe ‘Papal secrecy.’
“It did not advise them to report abusers to the police. Even today, the Pope refuses to open the Vatican’s sex abuse files and hand them to the relevant police forces worldwide. Many people see his inaction as collusion with sex crimes against children. Such a person should not be feted by our government.”
This strong-worded stance goes some way to explaining the emotions behind the Protest the Pope march. This was not only a march about the child abuse sex scandal in the Catholic church, it was about gay rights, women’s rights, science, contraception, AIDS, the power of the Vatican and the cost to the taxpayer of the state visit to the UK.
I spoke to Katharine Salmon, a member of the Catholic Women’s Ordination group, whose religious faith had come in direct opposition to her conviction that women should have equal rights. Therefore, she was attending this march in order to stand beside those who were protesting for her right to be ordained as a priest in the Catholic church – even though many were atheists. However, she also was set to attend the Papal rallies. She said: “I am Catholic but I am delighted to be here at the march. We are a group that stands for equality, which is what Jesus stood for. We want to see women ordained as priests, the same as men.”
Another protestor told me the very fact that there were so many issues under scrutiny had ensured her attendance at the rally. “The shockwaves of the sex abuse scandal have been felt worldwide,” she said. “But it’s more than that, it’s that his [the Pope’s] views seem so medieval. They aren’t compatible with a modern Britain where we celebrate equality and condemn discrimination.”
Many people in attendance on Saturday were there for one specific cause, whether it be anti-homophobia, women’s rights, abortion, stem-cell research, condom use or anger at the child sex abuse scandal. However, the groups and individuals managed to channel these grievances into only multiplied the outrage and the emotion, unifying the march and increasing its voice.
It is a lesson perhaps to be learnt for small voluntary groups. The hard, often unseen work behind the scenes was given a stage, making it visible and newsworthy at a time when the world was watching the UK to monitor its handling of the Pope’s visit.
Whatever your opinion on the Pope and his visit to the UK, the balance of showcasing these opposing views is vital for a democracy that prides itself on freedom of speech.
On Saturday, many people spoke out but thousands more listened.