Papal bull

Antonia Quirke isn’t wholly convinced by a miracle healing.

Coverage of the Pope's visit
Radio 5 Live

"Tell me that again," Stephen Nolan was saying on 5 Live to a competitor in the Great North Run. "You were 24 stone at Christmas, and now you're what? Oh - hang on, we've got to go back go Birmingham. Shelagh?" "Yes, thanks, Stephen," says Shelagh Fogarty, keenly. She's been at the beatification of Cardinal Newman since 5am. "The Pope's arrival was looking imminent," says Shelagh. "But . . . the stage in front of me. It's huge. I mean, the altar."

“Yes it is," nods the papal historian Michael Walsh. "And a great personal moment for Deacon Jack Sullivan," says Shelagh (adding, for the benefit of those who'd just tuned in: "His back was cured overnight after praying to the cardinal"). "Yesss," tries Walsh, a tad doubtfully, adding, "He's an American," as though it was an explanation. "We had him on 5 Live Breakfast this morning, telling his story!" cries Shelagh. Walsh makes a vague, discouraged sound. "Not wishing to inject a critical note into it, but miracles are always a bit . . . dicey."

My chief memory of the previous pope's visit: playing the recorder - a sound not unlike the wind whipping through an empty Tango can. That and a ten-hour Mass in Heaton Park in Manchester, watching others eat their mammoth picnics. As a family we didn't much go in for BBQs or crisps. That came later, by which point there were so many of us my parents were forced to throw in the towel and embrace the charcoal pit. "Communion will be interesting," Shelagh was saying in Birmingham. "Everyone will be wanting it from the Pope, of course."

Actually, that trip ended in triumph for the Quirkes. My sister - a baby - was spotted in a line-up by John Paul II, no less. My mother says that as he made his way through the crowd towards them she was struck by his factory shoes and surprising height - his scale in general - which completely vanished as he passed inside the focus of her eyes and fixed himself consolingly on Suzannah's forehead. ("No aftershave," she also noted.) Kissed by a pope. We have a photograph. And, you know, Suzannah, it simply must be said, turned out to be by far the nicest of all of us. "Well," says Shelagh, still flannelling in Cofton Park. "We've got some more time to wait. So. Transubstantiation, Michael - talk me through it."

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter