Pope John Paul II greets the crowd at B.C. Place in Vancouver on Sept. 18, 1984. He was given an enthusiastic reception at every stop on his 12-day tour. Photo courtesy B.C. Catholic/Holy See Press Office

History in the making: JP II visits Canada 35 years ago

By 
  • September 6, 2019

Thirty-five years ago this month, Pope John Paul II became the first pontiff to visit Canada. The impact of those 12 days in September hasn’t been forgotten.

Mike Mastromatteo was just beginning his first job in the newspaper world in March 1984, and already the excitement in the offices of The Catholic Register was palpable for a visit that wasn’t to take place for another six months.

Of course, this wasn’t just any visit. Pope John Paul II, the Bishop of Rome since 1978, was coming. It was the first-ever visit of the head of the Catholic Church to Canada. 

For 12 days in September, 35 years ago this month, Canada was the epicentre for Catholics as the Polish pope set off on a cross-Canada tour from the cradle of Canadian Catholicism in Quebec City Sept. 9 and criss-crossed the country — stopping in Trois-Rivieres, Montreal, Toronto, St. John’s, NL, Moncton, Halifax, Midland, Ont., Winnipeg and St. Boniface, Man., Edmonton, Vancouver and an unscheduled stop in Yellowknife — before departing from the nation’s capital on Sept. 20. 

He would be back twice more — a five-hour stop in Fort Simpson, NWT, in 1987 and World Youth Day in 2002 — but 1984 was history. 

“There was a buzz in the office from the time I first walked in,” remembers Mastromatteo, who was 27 at the time and a recent graduate of the journalism program at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now Ryerson University).

The buzz wasn’t confined to Church media. The daily newspapers were full of stories on the upcoming papal visit and the man who had captured the world’s imagination in six short years. Here was the first non-Italian pope to sit in the Chair of St. Peter in more than 400 years, a man recognized for his key role in battling communism in his native Poland and beyond, the pope who had significantly improved inter-faith relations, had upheld Church teachings on touchy matters like life issues, the ordination of women and a celibate priesthood while still supporting the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. And he was coming to Canada.

The reverberations from the trip continue to echo in many quarters, something that Fr. Dan Donovan, who shared commentating duties with Peter Mansbridge on CBC’s coverage of the visit, predicted just a year later in his book A Lasting Impact

“It will remain a special moment in the history of the Canadian people and the Canadian Church,” wrote the former theology professor at the University of St. Michael’s College.

Donovan said the pope’s visit inspired Canadians, and not just Catholics, to be part of something larger than themselves.

“Some thought for the first time in years about the larger questions, the meaning of life and the meaning of their own life, about the mystery of God, about values and priorities, about their hopes and fears,” wrote Donovan. 

“Some who had not been practising their religion in any public way began to do so. Others tried to make their involvement a little more personal, a little more genuine.”

For Mastromatteo and The Register staff, the visit was all-consuming.

“I’d say about 75 per cent of the news we handled involved preparations for John Paul II’s arrival,” said Mastromatteo. “It was an exciting time to be working for a Catholic paper.”

But he wouldn’t find the true excitement until his first assignment on the papal tour, which touched down in Toronto and area Sept. 14-15. It was at St. Paul’s United Church on Bloor Street East, where the pope celebrated an ecumenical service. There, he came within John Paul’s sphere and experienced what he had only heard about.

“(I got) within 10 feet of the pope as he made his rounds,” recalls Mastromatteo. “That was the time I really noticed the charisma and magnetism I’d heard so much about.”

Like Mastromatteo, the whole country would soon discover this magnetism as the pope continued on his exhaustive 13,000-kilometre trek from coast to coast (it would have taken in a third coast but for heavy fog keeping his plane from landing at Fort Simpson, though he made up for it three years later with a visit to the community at the end of an American tour and celebrated Mass for 5,000 people).

Those were extraordinary days for the Catholic Church in Canada, that September of 1984, remembers Fr. Jacques Monet, the Jesuit priest who was a commentator with Mansbridge on the first leg of CBC’s extensive coverage of the papal visit.

Monet took part in broadcasts from Quebec City, through Trois Rivieres and Montreal on to Toronto. Monet has many fond memories of the tour, including meeting John Paul at a downtown Toronto hotel. But one thing stood out.

“This kind of witness that people had naturally, that this was a holy time… is the main memory I have of those days,” he said. 

For Mastromatteo, there were mostly highs, but there were issues. Just before John Paul’s arrival, there was the threat of a garbage strike in Toronto, “and it gave everybody the jitters,” he said.

“Poor Cardinal (Gerald Emmett) Carter practically begged the city and the union to get it settled, but as it turned out, the province legislated an end to the strike before it even began,” said Mastromatteo.

The young reporter’s highlight was definitely the papal Mass at the former Canadian Forces base that is now Downsview Park. He remembers the media being “treated like royalty” and enjoyed the police escort for the media bus to and from the site. But nothing compared to the pope’s arrival.

“There was a loud shout from the crowd as the pope arrived in a big military helicopter,” he said. 

Richard Alway saw it up close and personal. He was one of the lucky few on stage for the papal Mass. 

He remembers it as a cold Saturday, the aftermath of a torrential overnight rain. Alway, former president and vice-chancellor of the University of St. Michael’s College and now Praeses of the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto, took a stroll through the field and recalls the conditions.

“The mud came up over the soles of the shoes,” he said. “The field had been trampled with all the people, so it was like walking through a swamp.”

Yet the people still came. And that was replicated everywhere the pope visited, from the 300,000 who welcomed him at Quebec City’s Laval University on Day 1 through to the 350,000 in Ottawa who saw the pope float in a papal boat through the Rideau Canal on the final day.

The numbers were huge, but one segment of the population took greater pleasure than most: Canada’s Polish community. It was a good time to be Polish, in Canada and around the world. Poles had been under the thumb of the Nazi regime in the Second World War only to be liberated into the arms of Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union. Yet here was one of their own, Karol Wojtyla, elected pope and on the frontline with Lech Walesa and the Solidarity Movement in the battle against communism, from which Poland and Eastern Europe would finally break free in a few years.

“He’s still called ‘Our
Pope,’ ” said Mary Samulewski, whose family has long-time ties to St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish in downtown Toronto, the oldest Polish parish in the city.

“Our Pope” had cultivated a relationship with the parish long before the papal visit. As Cardinal Karol Wojtyla he had visited Toronto and St. Stanislaus Kostka in the late 1960s and again in the mid-1970s. So imagine when he was elected pope the excitement that created. Come 1984, it exploded, especially when the parish found the pope was hosting an event for the Polish community that drew 55,000 people to nearby Exhibition Stadium.

“There was a real excitement in the parish to be able to go,” said Samulewski, a retired teacher who calls herself the unofficial historian of the parish. “We had quite a crowd. The kids from our Polish school went in costumes and they had special seating on the floor.”

“He sort of became part of the air we breathe in the church...”

The event seemed to go on forever, she said. Speeches, entertainment for their guest, it wouldn’t end.

“He had the patience of a saint,” laughs Samulewski about the man who in 2011 would be named a saint.

Not surprisingly, throughout John Paul’s pontificate this bond only strengthened at St. Stanislaus Kostka, other Polish parishes in Canada and throughout the world. When the increasingly frail pope began his physical deterioration years later, parishioners took notice and held Masses to pray for his health, said Samulewski. 

The bond remains strong to this day, particularly with older Poles who came to Canada after the war or who had lived under communist rule.

“There was something special about this pope. There’s a lot of respect for Pope Francis, but our pope is still John Paul II,” she said.

When he died in April 2005, it was like the parish had lost a close and cherished friend. Many parishioners who had long ago moved to parishes in the suburbs came home to St. Stanislaus to commemorate the man.

“We’d lost not just a pope but we’d lost someone very close to ourselves,” said Samulewski. “I’m sure a lot of people felt the same, but it was very, very strong in the St. Stan’s community.”

To this day, the parish continues to mark special anniversaries around their pope, and a large portrait of John Paul is a focal point inside the church.

“He sort of became part of the air we breathe in the church,” said Samulewski.

What can’t be lost in all the hoopla that surrounded this papal visit is that Pope John Paul II came to Canada with a message. 

He gave 34 major speeches or homilies during his visit and another 15 shorter messages or greetings. A wide range of subjects were broached, from faith and culture, to Mary, to the mystery of God, the family, community, the sacredness of human life, missionary work, technology, multiculturalism, unemployment, the arms race, Canada and the Third World, Indigenous peoples, peace and Jesus.

On Indigenous peoples, the pope foreshadowed what would become a major topic three decades down the road as Canada began the process of trying to reconciliate with its Indigenous people. 

He offered support on land rights while also recognizing that the Church had made many mistakes in the evangelization of Canada’s First Nations. While falling short of apologizing for abuses like the residential school system and the Church’s role there, his successor Pope Benedict XVI would eventually offer that apology in 2009.

It was the pope’s many encounters with Indigenous people during his visit that still resonates with Fr. Michael Knox, director of Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, where the pope took part in ceremonies that highlighted the roles of both the First Nations and the martyrs in the Church.

“The visit of St. John Paul II to the Martyrs’ Shrine, both literally and spiritually, set the apostolate on a trajectory that shapes an aspect of its continued mission,” said Knox.

“Literally, its infrastructure, to this day, is largely set to what was required to welcome the pontiff.  And, more importantly, spiritually, his invitation, on that day in 1984, to discover the face of Christ in the First Nations peoples, echoes that disposition found in St. Jean de Brébeuf and his companions, and today continues to invite pilgrims to encounter the loving presence of Christ Jesus in all people and things.”

Alway sees the 1984 visit as a watershed moment for Canada and Catholics alike.

“It was such a large event for Canada as a whole because John Paul was such a charismatic figure that even the secular world was impressed,” said Alway. “He had an impact far beyond the bonds of our own faith. It was sort of at its peak in 1984.”

Mastromatteo said the visit “made it cool to be Catholic” and that the reception from people from all walks of life was a positive reflection on Canada. It showcased “Canada, Toronto, the archdiocese and the Catholic faith on the world stage.”

It would all play out again 18 years later when John Paul returned to Toronto for the final time as he celebrated World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto with hundreds of thousands of young people. It was an older, much more frail pope, who came to Toronto, but the reception was just as great, witnessed by the 800,000 who gathered at Downsview — like in 1984, after torrential rainfalls during the night — to celebrate the closing Mass.

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