An elderly couple walked along the path to the cathedral door, both of them using two walking sticks. Perhaps they summarised the kernel truth of the north-western segment of the tour of the relics of St Therese. They were elderly, infirm, unaccompanied and struggled to reach the cathedral. Yet they succeeded and were prepared to wait for however long it took for them to reach, touch and pray before the ornate casket at the front of the cathedral. They used walking sticks, but so many came in wheelchairs, some of them outside their home for the first time in years.
Carers accompanied many visitors and pilgrims. There was the woman with her three adult children, one of them blind and all three with an inherited condition that had affected their brains. What have been her joys and sorrows during a life that cannot have been easy, however readily she took all three to receive Communion?
There was the man in acute pain, who had travelled to pray for his friend, a soldier back from Afghanistan, who would be having both legs amputated the following day.
Who else? What about the veritable army of volunteers who took responsibility for countless cups of tea and biscuits, marshalling crowds for hours on end as they filed past the reliquary, pausing to pray and to touch the Perspex cover?
Neither could one forget the stalwart souls who stood in draughty doorways, handing out beautifully-printed leaflets for special liturgies, the result of meetings at perhaps inconvenient moments squeezed into an already busy daily schedule. Not every item in the programmes could be done as a ‘copy, cut and paste’ with a computer: someone spent time behind the scenes, typing, printing and collating, but also ensuring the presence of sufficient paper, printer toner and paper-folding volunteers.
Neither has life been an easy delegating task for the clergy. They might have occasionally been hidden managers, but they have also achieved a monumental work in coordinating parish trips to venues, organising round-the-clock confessions, covering for hospital chaplaincies and catering for numbers that have been way beyond anybody’s expectations. Manchester University Catholic Chaplaincy, for example, does not normally instigate a torchlight procession along the busiest road in Manchester, accommodate 2,000 for a night vigil and see youngsters collect no fewer than 1,000 free copies of booklets on Catholicism. Preston’s Carmel does not usually see 2,000 people walk through its doors in the space of four hours.
Lancaster Cathedral has welcomed 27 coachloads of Scots who have crossed the border in a united desire to join in with all that has taken place in the ‘County of the Martyrs’ to celebrate the presence of St Therese’s relics. Yet there have also been an equal number of coaches from south of the border parked in and around the cathedral.
In Lancaster, the steady stream of people up the steep hill and along narrow roads obscured the fact that many had faced the transport problems of all rural dweller. Buses that are infrequent and irregular often add several hours to a journey, creating logistical problems where there are children, the sick or the elderly to consider. Trains are few and far between. Transport alone transformed the journey of many individuals into a true pilgrimage. Often, pilgrims would have liked to stay longer once they reached the cathedral, which celebrates its 150th anniversary on Sunday, but knowing that their bus might be only hourly or even two-hourly demanded prayer with an eye on the time.
As the relics move from Lancaster towards Newcastle, there is an abiding feeling of warmth, kindness and generous commitment between people of all faiths and none, of all ages, shapes, sizes and nationalities. There have been no ‘big’ people or celebrities. There have only been those who saw themselves as ‘ordinary folk’, the ones who are often unseen or ignored by the rest of the world, but who are the mainstay of any parish. Two night vigils, one for priests and Religious, the other for young people, ensured that, at no time, was the Cathedral without those who reverenced Therese but who gave the greater glory to God.
At the same time, there is a sense that Therese has acted as a catalyst, allowing Catholics the opportunity to congregate, enjoy each other’s company, pray together and to ‘be Church’ in a unique way. There is a feeling of having had the opportunity to reclaim Catholic heritage, regardless of potential misunderstanding and criticism from outsiders … and to everybody’s surprise, the result has been amazingly positive and supportive from even the most unlikely media quarters. Believers and unbelievers will be left with a memory of a very special togetherness, a moment catalysed by the bones of a young Carmelite nun who died a century ago.
Lancaster looks back through two millennia of faith. As the casket draws away from the Cathedral, past Lancaster Gate, which created the six Lancaster Martyrs, heading towards Newcastle, there are only two words to sum up Therese’s visit to the city: ‘Thank God!’