In May, it will be 35 years since St John Paul the Great visited Britain. It was an astonishing event – unthinkable in previous centuries. Vast crowds greeted him as he went from city to city. He had tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, and prayed with the leader of the Anglican communion at Canterbury.
At Westminster Cathedral, where he celebrated Mass, a great stone at the entrance to the chancel now commemorates the event, and is matched by another at the cathedral’s main entrance commemorating Pope Benedict XVI’s state visit in 2010.
St John Paul’s visit almost didn’t happen – because of the Falklands War. Argentina had invaded the Falkland Islands – long held by Britain but always deemed by Argentinians to be part of their own homeland – and the ensuing war involved a great fleet being sent out by Britain’s Royal Navy to regain the islands. It was unthinkable for the Pope to take sides in such a dispute – his visit to Britain was only salvaged by a decision to make a visit to Argentina too. In the end, both visits went well, and the Pope’s own style, and his fervent messages about peace, meant that his role as an authentic spiritual father of all the faithful was made clear.
Now, three and a half decades later, we have an Argentinian Pope. And St John Paul the Great has been canonised, his extraordinary ministry and message sealed into the Church’s history for future generations to be taught and to enjoy.
“For the first time in history, a Bishop of Rome sets foot on English soil…” the Pope’s deep voice emphasised the momentous nature of what was occurring. He landed at Gatwick airport and I well remember the atmosphere as we waited in the chill of a May morning, rehearsing dutifully the special welcome song that had been written for the occasion. The Duke of Norfolk – by tradition the senior lay representative of British Catholicism – met the Pope at the aircraft steps. Cheers went up as the Holy Father came down the steps and knelt to kiss the ground.
At Westminster Cathedral, he spoke from the balcony over the main doors. He seemed surprised by the sunshine – “We are thanking God for the good weather!”- and exuded goodwill and a sense of joy. He baptised a group of seven people of different ages and backgrounds, beginning a sacramental theme that would run throughout the visit. At St George’s Cathedral in Southwark, across the Thames from Westminster, there was an Anointing of the Sick, the pews removed so that vast numbers of people could be brought. A rather fine stained glass window in the Cathedral now depicts the event.
He had expressed a wish to go to Walsingham, England’s ancient shrine to Our Lady, but it had to be explained to him that this just would not be possible – it is a small village in Norfolk, inaccessible except by small twisting lanes, with the nearest railway several miles away. So Mary’s statue was brought to the great arena at Wembley in West London where the Pope celebrated Mass.
And so it went on – Glasgow, Cardiff, Liverpool, nine cities in all…vast crowds, much goodwill.
When this great Pope died in 2005 the world pondered the significance of his life, and watched with awe as the book of the Gospels, placed on his coffin, ruffled its pages in the wind and then gently closed with what seemed an enormously symbolic movement. The cry went up “Santo subito!” and he was canonised swiftly, his successor waiving the usual timing. And then that canonisation itself was a momentous one – two Popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, with Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict…a commemorative card with a depiction of all four of them is on the shelf where I open my computer each morning…
The Britain of 1982 seems very distant – an era before the Internet, before the imposition of same-sex “marriage”, before mobile phones, before jargon about “gender fluidity”. The Church seems different too – but here there is a very positive side to the changes. St John Paul gave us World Youth Days, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a renewed devotion to the Eucharist, and a whole new attachment to the Rosary complete with the Luminous Mysteries. He gave a sense of strength and a fatherly image to the papacy – by the time Pope Benedict XVI came to visit Britain, it was normal for people who were not Catholics to use the expression “Holy Father” and to have some grasp of a Pope’s role. British people, whatever their opinion of the Church’s teachings, certainly no longer think of the Pope as a foreign monarch or the Papacy as having territorial political claims on Britain.
Pope St John Paul gave us a message about courage – when he visited Britain he had just returned from Fatima, where he had given thanks for his survival from am assassination attempt. While he was at Fatima, another attempt was made – a renegade priest from the SSPX rushed forward to stab him, but although he drew blood was overpowered before serious harm was done. While he was in Britain, security measures were in place but all was well – and the days of his visit were joyful ones.
He gave us a message about prayer – “The Pope came to Britain to remind you to pray!” he told us. And he gave us memories to cherish.
I was a young then, newly married and looking ahead to all that life would offer. I give thanks that the next years were shaped by the teaching and example of a great saint. Thank you, Saint John Paul.