A CITY schoolgirl has spoken of her pride after meeting the Pope in a once-in-a-lifetime encounter.
Olympic rowing hopeful Gemma Titchmarsh was just yards away from Pope Benedict XVI as she pledged fair play in sport at St Mary’s University College, in Twickenham, yesterday.
After making the pledge in front of the Pope, the 15-year-old St John Fisher Catholic High School pupil was asked to stay on stage as one of just two people to move a candle, signifying the light of God.
She said: “It was an absolute honour to be chosen to go and meet the Pope. It was a great experience.
“There was a really good atmosphere and once the Pope turned up, it was quite unbelievable that I was part of it.
“Once on stage, I was just a couple of metres away from him and when I turned to bow to him, I was very nervous.
“I found out on the day that I had to stay on stage a bit longer to move the candle.
“I had his attention for that little moment and he was just smiling at me.”
Her proud father, Martin Titchmarsh (40), watched Gemma’s moment in the spotlight on his laptop in a street near King’s Cross train station.
Martin had just got off a train from Peterborough and was on his way to pick her up when he saw the footage.
He said: “It was a very proud moment for me.
“I’m really pleased for her because she’s achieved a lot in her sport work, as shown by being selected by her school.”
Meanwhile, pupils at St John Fisher Catholic High School, in Park Lane, watched live TV footage of The Big Assembly which was streamed into classrooms so all pupils could witness the event.
Headmaster Sean Hayes said: “The students were really excited because they spotted Gemma meeting the Pope.”
Gemma’s brother Sean Titchmarsh (17) also attends the school but unfortunately missed the moment his younger sister met Pope Benedict XVI.
Fellow pupils were quick to announce to him what they had seen and he also received text messages from his dad and mum Joanna Titchmarsh (39).
Sean, Joanna and Gemma are all Catholics and have made trips to the Vatican in the past to be near the Holy Father, but their family’s most memorable encounter came much closer to home.
The 32 youngsters, all wearing yellow polo shirts, joined Pope Benedict XVI on stage to vow to “play with the right spirit, enjoy myself, give of my best, respect others, myself and the rules”.
They spent three days in London preparing and Gemma bonded with many of the other representatives, meeting new friends to share her memories.
The Big Assembly event saw Pope Benedict XVI launch the John Paul II Sport Foundation in memory of his sporty predecessor, to encourage excellence in sport.
Gemma will be able to keep the specially-commissioned shirt as a memory of the historic day.
She is expected to give a special school assembly next week to reveal all about her experiences.
Sean said: “The whole school is really supportive, and as a family we are so proud of her”.
Eight fellow pupils were also lucky enough to be in the audience, watching the pope address young British Catholics after their names were picked at random out of a hat.
Despite a very early start, with organisers insisting the pupils arrived in Twickenham before 6.30am, Mr Hayes said the pupils were delighted to be given such a privilege.
He added: “For the school to be involved is absolutely brilliant.”
The Big Assembly was run with the Catholic Education Service for England and Wales, and was a celebration of Catholic education in the UK.
Gemma was given the honour of meeting Pope Benedict XVI after St John Fisher Catholic High School was asked to nominate one pupil who had shown outstanding sporting ability and had success competing either locally or nationally.
Meanwhile, Peterborough MP Stewart Jackson was also in the privileged position of being close to the Pope yesterday.
Mr Jackson was four rows back at Westminster Hall among 700 other people – including former Prime Minister Tony Blair – as the Pope gave a keynote speech to the crowd.
He said: “It was a very thought provoking, interesting speech from the Pope about the importance of an ethical framework, underpinning politics.
“Overall, I think his reception was very warm.”