Pope Benedict XVI told an assembly of schoolchildren that they should “grow in holiness”, and that they may be the saints of the future, at an event to celebrate Catholic education earlier today.
In the first public event of the UK papal visit since he arrived in England last night, the Holy Father told an excited gathering of children at St Mary’s University College in Twickenham, west London, that “they must not just be good students but good citizens and good people”.
After a positive start to the four-day papal visit yesterday, with large crowds in Edinburgh and Glasgow greeting the pontiff warmly, Benedict arrived in London last night and stayed at the Apostolic Nunciature residence in Wimbledon, south-west London before celebrating a private mass.
His second day of official functions – later he will meet the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace and address dignitaries at Westminster Hall – began with a celebration of Catholic education at the west London college.
There the Pope met Education Secretary Michael Gove and local MP Vince Cable, as well as Bishop Malcolm McMahon of Nottingham, chairman of the Catholic Education Service of England and Wales (CESEW), as well as its chief executive Oona Stannard.
Bishop McMahon welcomed the Holy Father for the “great joy” the visit had brought to their hearts.
“Today, we celebrate the many generations of young people who were educated in Catholic schools and colleges and have subsequently taken their place in society to serve the common good.
“We celebrate the wonderful sense of faith and community that characterises our schools. And we celebrate with you, our faith, our love, and our hope for the future.”
In turn the Pope said: “The presence of religion in Catholic schools is a powerful reminder of the much-discussed Catholic ethos that needs to inform every respect of school life. It means that the life of faith needs to be the driving force for every activity in the school.”
And in a comment that will be interpreted as a reference to the abuse crisis, Benedict talked about the importance of providing a “safe environment for children”.
He said: “The life of faith can only be effectively nurtured when the prevailing atmosphere is one of respect and affectionate trust.”
The Pope then opened the college’s John Paul II Institute for Sport, named after Benedict’s football-loving predecessor who hoped that sport and faith could go hand in hand.
The Pope was greeted by Welsh pupils, who gave him a book on the history of British martyrs, while Scottish pupils gave him a book of poetry from Iona.
Blue Peter presenter Andy Akinwolere introduced the second hymn, led by the award-winning Maria Fidelis gospel choir from north London. There was also a live link-up with St John Vianney Basic Cycle School in Gambia and Pupils of Holy Cross Primary School, Plymouth
Opening his address to the children after a prayer by John Henry Newman, the Holy Father said he hoped there were saints in the audience today.
“By far the best thing for you is to grow in holiness,” he told the children. “Money is not enough to make you happy. True happiness is to be found in God. Only He can satisfy the deepest needs of our hearts.”