John Paul II lit up Canada 25 years ago

  • September 11, 2009
{mosimage}When Pope John Paul II made his Canada-wide visit 25 years ago, people feasted their eyes on the largest event the country had ever known.

After having landed in Quebec City Sept. 9, 1984, the pontiff crisscrossed his way across Canada in a monumental 12-day trip that took him to every province except Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island, drawing tens of thousands at every site.

Today, many still remember the pope’s visit vividly.

“We were standing at the big open doors of the (shrine) church and suddenly the pope arrived and oh my goodness — the pope was so charismatic, people were just awed,” said Joyce Hamelin, a resident of Midland, Ont., who volunteered in the setup of the Martyrs’ Shrine the day before John Paul II arrived. “People were just trying to touch him and he just kept putting his hand out and smiling. He was very gracious.” 

Hamelin’s parents were among the guests selected to sit in the church when John Paul II came through, and her daughter, then a nurse at St. Michael’s Hospital, was volunteering in the makeshift hospital set up in the church’s basement. Behind the scenes, the church community received a glimpse of the rigourous security measures that needed to be taken — Hamelin’s daughter, accompanying a doctor assigned to treat a cardinal’s twisted ankle, had her bun of hair inspected before she could enter the temporary papal dwelling.

{mosimage}Hamelin, who helped assign seating, learned that police officers would be scattered among the mostly elderly and infirm guests who would await the pontiff in the church. The night before, she watched police bring in a canine unit to sniff out possible explosives. But with the pope’s long-awaited visit, all was forgotten in his warming presence and the “almost glowing” faces that surrounded him.

“I think he was a very holy man and I think that’s maybe what people saw,” Hamelin said. “He was a man who everyone admired mostly because he was somebody who knew how to include everyone and for me that was something obvious.”

Fr. John O’Brien, S.J., though he was in Rome during the 1984 visit, said the pope spoke very fondly of Canada after his return.

“As consultor to the pontifical commission for social communications, I was present for the plenary session lasting five days. My term was ending so I was presented as a Canadian Jesuit returning to Canada. His face lit up and he beamed at me, ‘Oh yes, Canada. Very happy memories. One of my best pastoral visits.’ ” O’Brien said.

The trip was also the longest of John Paul’s 104 international papal visits.

Marilyn Bergeron, a long-time diocesan leader for youth events in the Alexandria-Cornwall diocese, accompanied a busload of young people to Montreal and Ottawa during that leg of the pontiff’s first Canadian journey.

“What probably impressed me most about all this was the number of people who were so excited to see him,” Bergeron said. “The strength and the breadth of the Catholic population probably impressed me most. At that point I was at a different place in my faith but I do remember the crowds and how impressed I was to see how many people were following him and were anxious to hear what he had to say.”

{mosimage}Though they were anxious, at least one community was left hanging. Thick fog prevented the pope’s plane from landing in Fort Simpson, NWT, where he was supposed to meet with aboriginal people and Inuit. The CBC videotaped his prepared speech while his flight was stopped in Yellowknife, but the Pope promised to return, and did so after a visit he made to the United States three years later.

Twenty-five years ago, Fr. Thomas Rosica, the organizer for Pope John Paul II’s 2002 World Youth Day visit in Toronto, was a theology student living in Montreal with some of the organizers of the Montreal portion of the visit. Looking over footage from the CBC this past month with his staff at Salt + Light Television, he said the memories came flooding back and brought many of them to tears.

“Canadians experienced in Pope John Paul II a shepherd of souls, a courageous pastor, a dynamic, charismatic leader who touched people deeply,” Rosica said. “Pope John Paul II united Canada in 1984 in ways that (had) never happened before and would never happen again — it was a graced moment as he crisscrossed this vast land proclaiming Jesus Christ.”

He added that Canadians would do well to re-read the talks the pope delivered in 1984 as they are still relevant today, even if for many it may seem like a distant historical memory.

“The graces and blessings of that visit continue to be felt 25 years later,” Rosica said, adding that’s something Salt + Light has highlighted in its special anniversary program available on Salt + Light or on its web site at

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