The day Pope Benedict came to Scotland

Former First Minister Alex Salmond on the day 12 years ago the Pope arrived in Caledonia.

I used to think that the telex was something which had disappeared long ago with the old teleprinter that back in the day revealed the football results. But as of 2010 it was still the official means of communication of papal security.

At around 8pm on September 16 2010, alongside the late Archbishop Mario Conti, I received a telex message from the Swiss Guard confirming that his Holiness Pope Benedict XVI had left Scottish airspace en route to London.

At that point I received a confession from the archbish- op, who said that much as he had been anticipating the papal return to Bellahouston Park, where Pope John Paul II had wowed the masses back in 1982, he shared my overwhelming sense of relief that the entourage had been passed on safe and sound, leaving a considerable triumph in their wake.

Pope Benedict started his visit to the UK earlier that morning when his flight from Ciampino arrived at Edinburgh Airport. Being a head of state, on an official state visit, the late Duke of Edinburgh greeted the pope at the airport as he stepped foot on Scottish soil.

Such was the anticipation of the day back at (the Scottish Parliament), only half of the MSPs took part in First Minister’s Questions that day.

It was one of the few occasions that I opted to absent myself from the weekly grilling in my tenure as First Minister to attend another event in Scotland – my then deputy Nicola Sturgeon was in parliament to stand in for me.

It was a mark of the importance with which Scotland treated the visit of Pope Benedict.

Meanwhile over at Holyrood Palace, Queen Elizabeth was receiving Pope Benedict for an audience followed by the state reception in which I had the privilege of welcoming the pope to the country on behalf of the people of Scotland.

Here I should relate a very human story of the importance of faith. Stephen Gallagher was the top Scottish golfer of the time. His career had been interrupted by a very serious illness from which he was in the process of making a determined recovery.

A mutual friend communicated a request to ask if I could arrange a papal blessing for Stephen’s Rosary beads. In the event I was able to do rather better than that and secured Stephen a place at the reception – the hottest ticket in town.

Whether it was a direct result or not, the consequence was a remarkable Gallagher return to form to win a place as the only Scot in the successful European Ryder Cup team at Gleneagles in 2014.

Huge crowd

Around 125,000 Scots lined the streets of Edinburgh to welcome the pope as he proceeded through the nation’s capital, travelling in the popemobile from Holyrood Palace along Abbeyhill, Regent Road, Princes Street, Lothian Road, Tollcross and Morningside to the Archbishop of St Andrews & Edinburgh’s official residence.

The late Cardinal Keith O’Brien bedecked his holiness in a special papal tartan scarf which wowed the crowds.

I wore my own edition of the scarf to the Bellahouston Mass and this St Ninian’s Day Tartan of vibrant blues, greens, yellow and whites quickly shot to the top of the tartan charts.

The 2010 visit presented greater challenges than that of the 1982 visit of Pope John Paul II. More than forty years on from the visit of Pope John Paul II the security situation has changed and for the visit of Pope Benedict it was decided that Mass at Bellahouston Park would be fully ticketed.

The success of the visit was the culmination of many months of planning between the Church’s team and officials from the Scottish Government to ensure that everything could run smoothly with the maximum of public participation and exposure.

It succeeded beyond all our best expectations. Archbishop Leo Cushley, who accompanied his holiness on his visit, said recently that he thought the pope had never seen anything to match the enthusiasm of the Scottish peoples’ reception, with the crowds and a mass of saltires flying amid the yellow and white of the Vatican flags.

With a lack of buses available to get everyone to the outskirts of Glasgow, we mobilised ScotRail to run special chartered services to help many thousands of Catholics from the West of Scotland get to Cardonald station.

It wasn’t until many years later that I appreciated just how much this meant to members of the Catholic community, with one person that travelled from Inverclyde recalling to me that this made them feel for the first time in their life as a Catholic in Scotland, that they had absolute parity of esteem with their peers across the land.

It was a simple but profound point. Back in 1982 Pope John Paul II spoke to those in attendance that many years of wounds since the Reformation and the historical mistreatment of Scotland’s Catholics had finally been mended. He remarked that Catholics could then freely occupy offices in society.

A special daughter

Of course, Scotland has had a special place in the Catholic Church for almost a 1,000 years. Scimus Fili, written decades before the Declaration of Arbroath, was a Papal Bull issued by Pope Boniface VIII on June 27, 1299.

The Bull condemned King Edward I of England’s invasion and occupation of Scotland and made it clear that Scot- land held its special status under the protection of the Roman Church first conferred by Pope Honorius III in 1218.

It is this key point in history that made clear in my mind many years ago, that without the resolute defence of the nation by the Apostolic See, and most of all by the Church in Scotland, our country would not have survived the Middle Ages.

It was the mission of the late Cardinal Thomas Winning to see the Scottish Catholic community fully accepted as an equal and respected part of the nation and as Scotland’s first independence supporting first minster, I regarded it as my task to demonstrate my support for that noble aim in official policy.

Over the coming days and weeks the people who were close to Pope Benedict will write of what he was really like. In the few moments I had with him I found him gentle, kind and impressive in his knowledge and Faith.

I fully believe his decision to stand down in 2013 was not a sign of weakness but the strength of self-sacrifice – the response of a Holy man to the knowledge that another would be best placed in health to respond to the challenges facing the Church and to take the Faith forward.

One final thought. What gift did Scotland decide on for a pontiff of such known modesty? At a reception in Edinburgh Castle, we unveiled a Celtic-style sandstone block inlaid with granite from St Ninian’s Cave in Galloway in south-west Scotland and with a cross in the style of the Whithorn Stones which were carved by Scotland’s early Christians.

The sandstone block, crafted by the apprentices in Historic Scotland, carries the inscription ‘Te Dominum Laudamus’ (We Praise the Lord), which are the words carved on Scotland’s most ancient Christian relic, the Latinus Stone, which was found at Whithorn, Dumfrieshire, in south-west Scotland, and dates back to around 450AD.

It was a fitting gift from the people of the ‘filia specialis’ – a favourite daughter of the Church.

Alex Salmond is the former First Minister of Scotland and current leader of the Alba Party.

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