The parents of Madeleine McCann made an emotional and spiritual pilgrimage to the Vatican yesterday to pray with the Pope for the return of their missing daughter.
The four-year-old vanished 27 days ago at the holiday resort of Praia da Luz in the Algarve. Since then Kate and Gerry McCann have campaigned relentlessly to find her.
The Catholic couple from Rothley, Leicestershire, met the Pope after he addressed a crowd of 30,000 people at his regular Wednesday audience in St Peter’s Square.
The meeting was arranged through Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster.
Beforehand, the couple sat in the front row, both dressed in black. Mrs McCann had green and yellow ribbons in her hair and wore a homemade green-and-yellow rosary around her neck with Madeleine’s name spelt out in the beads. She clutched Cuddle Cat, her daughter’s favourite toy.
At times she closed her eyes, as though battling with her composure. The couple comforted one another with occasional hugs.
Their most difficult moment appeared to come when, during the ceremony, an English-speaking priest delivered a prayer to the crowd on behalf of the Pope, saying: “In a special way his blessing goes to your children and your loved ones.” The McCanns wiped tears from their bowed heads.
After the Pope’s homily the couple queued patiently behind a barrier as the Pope worked his way down the line, speaking to the specially chosen few, touching them and accepting gifts from them.
When the McCanns’ turn came, their audience lasted all of 30 seconds. The Pope took a hand of each of them, looked them in the eye and said with evident concern that he would pray for them. Mr McCann then kissed the Pope’s hand.
When Mrs McCann offered him a photograph of the smiling girl he took it and touched the image with his hand, as if to bless it.
Seated behind the couple were Francis Campbell, the British Ambassador to the Holy See, and Clarence Mitchell, their Foreign Office liaison officer. Near by, a group of 15 deacons from Britain offered their support.
Richard Edwards, deacon of Our Lady of Lourdes, Queen of Peace Roman Catholic Church in Brighton, said: “You can only have sympathy for them. We hope and pray there will be some good news. It was quite clear from the start that they have taken strength from their faith. It is an enormous privilege to meet the Pope from a spiritual point of view.”
At the inevitable press conference afterwards, held in the ambassador’s residence, Mr McCann said of meeting the Pope: “It was more personal than I could ever imagine. There was recognition immediately, looking at Madeleine’s photograph.
His touch, words and thoughts were more tender than we could have hoped, and will sustain us during this most difficult time.”
Mrs McCann added: “It was very emotional but it was a very positive experience really. It has been very helpful to us. He was very kind. He said he would pray for us and our family and continue to have faith in us.”
During the ceremony a butterfly had landed on the ribbons in her hair. It flew away and then returned minutes later to her lapel. She said: “It was strange but lovely. It was like a small sign of hope.”
The couple said that they had mixed emotions about visiting the Vatican because the occasion was tinged by sadness.
Mr McCann said: “In other circumstances it would be the highlight for any Catholic to meet the Pope. But it is tainted by the marked realisation that our daughter is still missing.”
He said the most difficult aspect of the abduction was not knowing where she was.
Mrs McCann said: “The first 72 hours really were the worst time for both of us. It was hard to get away from the dark places. But as time goes on the support we have had, and the prayers, really do give us strength and hope. We are stronger and more positive.”
The Vatican evidently considered the meeting important. Father Frederico Lombardi, the Pope’s spokesman, said that the couple were fervent Catholics.
Father Guido Todeschini, who heads the Telepace televi-sion network, which films the Pope’s audiences, said: “The Vatican hoped the meeting would be of comfort to the family. Not just the Pope but the whole church is praying for the return of Madeleine.”
The McCanns then returned to Portugal to their two-year old twins, Sean and Amelie.
They have no plans to return to Britain, but instead will visit Madrid, Berlin and Amsterdam to issue yet more pictures and appeals for information.
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