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13 November 2014

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You are in: North Yorkshire > Faith > The visit of Pope John Paul II to York

John Paul II at York Racecourse

Pope John Paul II

The visit of Pope John Paul II to York

On Monday 31 May 1982 Pope John Paul II visited York and hundreds of thousands of people flocked to the racecourse. Jim O'Keefe was involved and has fond memories of organising the event.

On the morning of Monday 31 May 1982, a beautiful early summer day, a man drove his car from Leeds to visit his mother who lived on The Mount.

He tried to take his normal route into the City from the A64, and was amazed to find his way blocked by police. He politely explained to the officer that he always visited his mother on a Bank Holiday, so what was the problem.

The policeman equally politely explained that there were diversions in place to help ease the flow of tens of thousands of people coming to the Knavesmire.

Crowds of people at York Racecourse

Over 170,000 flocked to the Knavesmire

The visitor asked 'why all this bother' and was told that the Pope was coming to York in the afternoon and that there would be a good few people there to see him. The citizen from Leeds refused to believe that Pope John Paul II was in the country and drove off cursing the police officer for being obstructive.

It is hard to believe it! I had lived in York since 2nd of February that year, and had lived and breathed the visit of Pope John Paul every waking moment. As Press Officer for the visit I felt a total failure that someone in the North of England had managed to not hear a word about it.

I really enjoyed the whole experience. At that time there were over 200 local newspapers serving the people living between Berwick and Sheffield.

Every one of them wanted their own story. We needed to prepare a list of these papers and received great help from the North Yorkshire Police Communications Department, which probably explains why most of the information about the visit of the Pope arrived on the crime reporter's desk.

"He has covered more miles than all the previous Popes in history "

Father James O'Keefe

As the date drew closer, the questions became rather more bizarre: 'What will the Pope be wearing in York?' - no doubt from the Fashion desk. This was late on a Friday afternoon and I remember saying: 'Probably the jeans and T shirt he was given by the young people in New York'. I don't remember seeing the article in print.

There was a huge 'behind the scenes' operation going on. It was only just over a month since Pope John Paul had been shot at pretty well point blank range in Rome (13 May 1981). Security was an important issue. I found myself becoming a bit of an expert on the different levels of 'bullet resistant glass', and how to arrange transport for the Pope by train from York Station in case the weather was so bad the helicopter could not take off for Leeming Bar.

We needed to hire local airfields for car parking, look at medieval laws covering the sale of goods 'on Common Land', ensure that the turf of the Knavesmire wasn't seriously damaged so that no harm would come to extremely expensive racehorses in the months to come, and continue to remember that the Country was in conflict with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.

But it was a magnificent day. Around 190,000 people assembled on the Racecourse for the one hour and twenty minute visit of Pope John Paul. He arrived in a magnificent Sikorski helicopter - one of two, actually, not even the Chief of Police knew which of the two he was in, all for the sake of security. He had made the short trip from Manchester and was in fine spirits as he mounted the specially built Podium on the Knavesmire.

The Pope addressing the crowd

The Pope speaking at York Racecourse

People had been assembling from midnight. At 8.00 am the Bishop of Leeds, Rt Rev Gordon Wheeler, celebrated Mass for the many thousands of people who had already arrived and taken up their places in the various dozens of 'corals' in place on the grass.

It is quite amazing over the last 20 plus years to bump into people 'who were there', who remember the people from their parish or street communities who joined them. Many people remember the services of prayer before the arrival of the Pope, the themes of Marriage, local Christian Heritage and the Feast of the Day - The Visitation of Our Lady.

The whole visit of Pope John Paul was based on the Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church. In York he celebrated Marriage and Family Life. In his sermon, he referred to the 'hopes and ideals that sustain the Christian vision of marriage and family life'. This is still a very important issue for us today, so many years after the Visit.

The Pope was very compassionate about 'marriages that fail', and the pain experienced by people in broken relationships. It may be that in his recent months and weeks of physical pain, he might well have even more insight into the struggle of others who find it difficult to cope with stress and frailty.

From York, Pope John Paul II flew to Leeming Bar and then, by fixed wing aircraft, to Edinburgh to continue his pilgrimage through Scotland and then Wales. His visit seems to have left an indelible impression on the lives of those who were able to be present in the different places he visited.

Pope John Paul II blessing a couple who renewed their marriage vows

Pope John Paul II blessing a married couple

A couple renewed their marriage vows

Since then, he has travelled the world. He has covered more miles than all the previous Popes in history. He has written very important documents about Justice and Peace, the Rights of Workers, Relationships among the Christian Churches.

He was very strong on the missionary work of the Church and the Rights of People to be able to worship in freedom. He has been very conscious of the relationship between the Christian Church in the Western part of the world (Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, other Christian communities) and the Church in the East - Russian, Greek, Ukrainian and other Orthodox communities.

He has engaged in serious discussion with those who are followers of Islam. Judaism, Hinduism, and many other faiths. In 2002, he invited 192 leaders of other faith communities to come together at Assisi and 'pray in the presence of one another' - a favourite phrase of his - to show the world that we need to take prayer seriously and respect the different traditions of one another.

There is no doubt that in recent years Pope John Paul became more fragile, more vulnerable and less able to manage everyday tasks. His witness has been to bear this suffering with dignity and respect. If only we could all live in an environment where fragility and frailty could be respected and that we could learn from the commitment, dedication and spiritual awareness of those who have gone before us.

Father James O'Keefe

last updated: 08/10/2008 at 17:48
created: 14/09/2005

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