Pope John Paul II waves to the vast crowd that attended the vigil at Toronto’s Downsview Park during World Youth Day 2002. More than 800,000 attended the week-long event. Photo by Michael Swan

The Register Archives: Ailing Pope lives up to his WYD promise

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  • July 25, 2018

Despite declining health, Pope John Paul II made good on his promise on July 23, 1984 by stepping off a plane in Toronto to attend World Youth Day celebrations. The Register covered every angle of the massive event, including the Pope’s arrival at Pearson airport, as Christl Dabu reported in the paper’s special World Youth Day 2002 edition:


He’s no longer the same “athletic Pope” who took a gruelling 12-day, 15-city, coast-to-coast tour of Canada in 1984, but Pope John Paul II showed the strength of spirit as great as an Olympic athlete when he arrived here July 23 for World Youth Day 2002. 

The 82-year-old Pontiff stepped off the Alitalia MD-11 jet with his entourage of 170 shortly after 1 p.m., keeping his promise to join young people for the 17th World Youth Day in Toronto despite widespread concern that he wouldn’t make it due to his deteriorating health.

Surprising the crowd gathered to greet him, the Pope slowly dragged himself down the plane’s steep stairs with the aid of his cane and the bishops behind him. The Pope suffers from Parkinson’s disease and arthritis, and has had to cut back on foreign visits due to his fragile health. 

Yet he endured a nine-hour and 20-minute flight from Rome in his second papal visit to Toronto. 

“Thank you for everything that has been accomplished to see to it that this World Youth Day has become a reality. Dear Canadians, I warmly remember my first apostolic trip in 1984, and I remember my short visit of 1987 visiting the Aboriginal people. This time, I must limit myself to Toronto only, and from here I am greeting all Canadian citizens,” the Pope said in his brief speech after being transported by a moveable platform along the red carpet to the stage at the airport.

“Too many lives begin and end without joy, without hope. There is one principal reason for the World Youth Day — young people are coming together to commit themselves in a search for their faith in Christ, to the great call for peace and human solidarity. Thank you Toronto. Thank you Canada for welcoming them with open arms,” he added. 

Among the 540 dignitaries and guests at the airport to greet the Pope was a welcoming party of 90 youth, mostly Canadians. The dignitaries included Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his wife, Aline, Ontario Premier Ernie Eves and Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman. 

“The very fact that your Holiness has travelled all the way here is a testimony to your courage and tenacity,” Chretien said. “You have inspired us to continue our efforts to build a better world where all can live in peace, and practise their faith free from fear. And I know that thousands of the young people who have come to hear your words will leave galvanized to meet the challenges of the future.” 

After a 50-minute welcome ceremony, the Pope left Toronto in a helicopter for a 20-minute flight to Strawberry Island on Lake Simcoe near Orillia, Ont., accompanied by an air ambulance and three Canadian military helicopters to ensure his safety. 

(To explore more from The Catholic Register Archive, go to catholicregister.org/archive)

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