On the morning of 2 June 1982 history was made when Pope John Paul II became the first reigning pontiff ever to come to Wales, flying in to Cardiff Airport and then moving on to the capital city itself.

The Pope made his historic visit as part of a pastoral trip to Britain between 29 May and 6 June 1982. It was a visit that was nearly cancelled before it began because of the Falkland Islands war that had erupted just a few weeks previously.

Political sensitivities meant that he did not meet the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and also strenuously avoided any political statements or gestures during the visit.

However, having made the decision to come, it was a phenomenally successful trip that saw Pope John Paul meet the Queen, head of the Church of England, and take a joint service with the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was estimated that over two million people flocked to see the Pope, including 80,000 who attended a service at Wembley Stadium.

The visit to Cardiff was to be one of the highlights of the trip. The Pope arrived at Cardiff Airport early in the morning of 2 June. He then began an impromptu walkabout that was well received but which rather delayed his itinerary.

From the airport the Pope was driven to Pontcanna Fields where thousands were waiting to greet him. Many of them had been there all night, over 4000 people with disabilities having been bussed in during the early hours.

While waiting, the crowd had been entertained with hymn singing and other music. Cardiff entertainer Frank Hennesey had written a song of welcome which he performed along with David Burns, whose family originally came from Newtown, a Catholic area of the city that was for years known as Little Ireland.

Pope John was greeted with enthusiastic applause as he drove in his famous Popemobile across a specially constructed bailey bridge over the Taff. He then took an open-air mass during which peals of thunder and heavy rain failed to dampen the spirits of the crowd.

If his visit wasn't already a success, Pope John Paul captured the hearts of the Welsh crowd when he called out "Bendith Duw Arnoch – The blessing of God be on you." His use of Welsh virtually brought the house down, as they say! Thirty children then received their first communion from the Pope and as he drove away the crowd sang "We'll keep a welcome in the hillside."

From Pontcanna the Pope went to Ninian Park, then the home of Cardiff City Football Club, where he conducted a youth service. In his public address after the mass he made an appeal for world peace.

During his visit the Pope was presented with various gifts including a miner's lamp and a book of Welsh poetry. In the only faintly political gesture of the whole trip to the UK, he was offered and received the freedom of the city of Cardiff.

The Pope's visit to Wales was an unmitigated success. Hundreds of thousands gathered just to see him drive past. In that one brief visit he probably did more for Anglo-Catholic relations than a year of formal talks and nobody who saw him on that momentous day will ever forget it. It was, quite literally, history in the making.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by Noreen

    on 11 Jun 2013 20:36

    I enjoyed the blog, it brought back many memories. But what you didn't say or point out was the significance of the visit for Roman Catholics in this country. Catholics had been persecuted for years, right up to the eighteenth century, so to have the reigning pontiff come to Britain was an amazing event. It was the beginning of a new era.

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