Thursday May 31, 2007

By David Piditch and Matt Drake in Praia da Luz

IT should have been their proudest day. Instead it was the most poignant.

Kate and Gerry McCann met the Pope at the Vatican yesterday in the latest step of their search for daughter Madeleine.

During the emotional meeting Pope Benedict XVI took hold of Mrs McCann’s hand and offered tender words of comfort and prayers. He also blessed pictures of Madeleine and her two-year-old twin brother and sister, Sean and Amelie.

Gerry squeezed Kate’s shoulder as she thanked Pope Benedict. The couple then kissed the sacred ring on the Pope’s finger.

But it was a butterfly which landed on a yellow ribbon in Mrs McCann’s hair which brought a surreal calm. It flew off but came back again to settle on her lapel.

Clarence Mitchell, a family spokesman for the McCanns, said: “It is a sign that Madeleine was with us. It’s a good omen.”

The couple were among more than 35,000 pilgrims who gathered in St Peter’s Square for the Pope’s weekly audience. They were given front row seats in front of the Basilica after the meeting was set up by Roman Catholic church officials in Britain.

Afterwards Mrs McCann, a part-time GP, said: “He told us he would pray for us and our family and said he would continue to pray for Madeleine’s safe return to us.”

Reflecting on the butterfly, she said: “It was really strange but lovely, it was like a symbol of hope.”

The couple described their trip to Rome as “absolutely fantastic”. They told how they had been warmly received by the British ambassador of the Holy See and his staff.

Among them was Monseigneur Charlie Burns, a Glaswegian who has been in Rome for 50 years and has close links to the embassy. A source of strength for the couple, he patted them on the back when the prayers referred to children.

Mr McCann said: “He gave us rosaries and told us, ‘this will remind you that I am praying for you every day’. That prayer was very tactful, anyone could take anything they chose from it and it was very important for us.” Mrs McCann added: “Charlie was lovely. Everyone at the embassy almost felt like family by the time we left.”

The McCanns have relied heavily on their faith throughout their 28 day ordeal and yesterday described their “mixed emotions” after leaving Portugal for the first time together to jet into Rome.

Mr McCann, a consultant cardiologist, said: “In ordinary circumstances of course it would be the highlight of any Catholic to come and meet the Pope. Of course it is saddened with the very marked realisation that our daughter is still missing. It was more personal than I could ever have imagined.

“There was recognition when he looked at the photograph. His touch, words and thoughts were more tender than I could have ever thought.”

Mr McCann said the goodness generated by “one evil act” had restored his faith. “We know many people both here and elsewhere are praying for our daughter and that helps us sustain our belief that we can get her back safely,” he said.

Mrs McCann agreed: “It was very emotional but also a very positive experience. It’s been very important to us.”

Asked about her conversation with the pontiff, Mrs McCann said: “He was very kind and sincere. I thanked him first of all for letting us meet him and I thanked him for his prayers.”

She added: “It helped us tremendously. It can only make us stronger and lift us up more.”

Holding up a poster of Madeleine written in Italian, Mr McCann described the agony of not knowing where their daughter is being held.

“We’re still in the middle of a race and we do not know how long it is going to be,” he said.

“I do not know how we will have changed but I think it is fair to say we will never be the same again.”

Pope Benedict approached the couple at the end of his audience which was held in the open air and began in blazing
sunshine but ended in a brief shower.

As the couple were escorted away, a group of pilgrims from Britain who were sat behind them broke into spontaneous applause.

Trevor Kavanagh, from Merton, South-west London, said: “Our hearts really do go out to them. We knew they were going to be here as we saw it on the news.

“It must be really hard for them but they will draw great strength and inspiration from their meeting with the Pope and their strong faith has been obvious from the start and that will also help them.”

Last night Papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said of the encounter: “It was a gesture of spiritual closeness, of prayer and of particular attention to this child and the parents of all missing children.

“It was a very significant act of support to Madeleine’s parents, to the search for her and in the fight against abductions.”

During the 90-minute audience, the Pope offered a “special blessing to children everywhere”.

His words proved too much for the McCanns who wiped back the tears with their heads bowed. They were dressed in sombre dark suits which had been bought for the meeting.

Mrs McCann wore yellow and green ribbons in her hair – a symbol of hope in Portugal.

The couple flew in from the Algarve in a 12-seater Gulfstream jet belonging to retail tycoon Sir Philip Green.

Last night they flew back to the holiday resort of Praia da Luz where Madeleine was snatched on May 3.

They were re-united with the twins who were considered too young to make the trip and were looked after by close relatives.

Click HERE to go to the Madeleine website

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