When love came to town

Nobody in Drogheda who was alive at the time will ever forget the day Pope John Paul II arrived on the outskirts of town. When the Holy Father became the first and only pontiff to visit the Emerald Isle in September 1979, it represented the singlemost poignant and significant event of our recent history.

The choice of Ireland’s smallest county as a setting for one of the biggest masses ever celebrated on this island was in itself a special blessing for Louth and the people of the Wee County will always hold dear the Polish native who went on to become one the greatest human beings in living memory, writes Gerry Robinson.

Upon his death in April 2005, it was said of Pope John Paul II that he had met more people than any other person in the entire history of the world - ever. Quite an extraordinary claim about a truly remarkable man who spread a message of love and tolerance that touched us all.

During the course of his numerous travels around the world, John Paul II managed to reach out to everybody. That was his gift. It was personal. We felt like we knew him.

Louth was touched. On Wednesday September 29 1979, 300,000 pilgrims gathered on a hilltop at Killineer, just outside Drogheda, to observe our great leader celebrate an open air mass. The enormity and sheer scale of the occasion was overwhelming, to the extent that in hindsight the memories play like a dream sequence. The Boyne valley hinterland had never witnessed anything like it before. It’s doubtful we’ll ever see the likes of it again.

When ‘our’ Pope - the leader for a generation - left this world just over a quarter of a decade later, his death affected us deeply. Everybody was in agreement that this had been a truly great man who will be remembered as one of the giants of his time. He changed the world. He taught us all lessons in love, forgiveness, understanding, humility and suffering. Poverty and oppression were top of his hitlist, and he leaves behind a wonderful legacy.

Drogheda will always have a special connection with the third longest-serving Pope in history due to the extraordinary scenes that unfolded before our captivated eyes in September of ‘79.

The visit to Drogheda of Pope John Paul II truly was something special, historic and surreal. There were more than a quarter of a million people assembled in a farmer’s field upon a hillside at Killineer to hear the pontiff declare that he had arrived “as a pilgrim of faith with a message of peace and reconciliation.” The Pope - on only his second national visit - went on to pay tribute to the people of Ireland for keeping their faith through testing times of persecution, poverty, famine and exile.

It is difficult to believe that this great man stood on the banks of the Boyne addressing a nation in his inimitable, hypnotic tone. Every word he uttered hung in the air. Karol Wojtyla was one of the most charismatic visitors the Wee County has ever hosted.

John Paul II spent only 50 hours in Ireland but he captured the hearts of a nation with his warm personality, sincerity and his gift of peace.

The island was in a state of depression at the time of the papal visit, with the troubles in the North spiralling out of hand and the economy spluttering. Pope John Paul II brought us hope and it could be argued that his visit was a catalyst which subsequently helped Ireland turn the corner to escape a dark age. He appealed directly to the men of violence to lay down their weapons. Not long after, we had a ceasefire in Northern Ireland and the genesis of the Celtic Tiger.

The Bishop of Rome alighted an orange helicopter amid scenes of raw emotion. One figure commanded the attention of all. Everybody wanted a sight of the Pope. Is there such a thing as Pope-mania?

Subject of the tightest security operation ever mounted in this country, Pope John Paul II received a rousing welcome, papal flags flying in the breeze, beaming faces adorned with smiles, tears of joy flowing freely.

There was the historic (fruitful) plea for peace (“On my knees, I beg you to turn away from the path of violence”) and the thrilling spectacle of Pope John Paul travelling through the throng aboard his ‘pope mobil’.

This was officially the biggest gathering of people in the Boyne River valley since 1843, when Daniel O’Connell convened a mass meeting on the Hill of Tara to protest against British rule. It was one of the most historic events ever to take place in Louth, certainly the most memorable of the past century.
All who were present knew that something exceptional, something unique and deeply personal was taking place. John Paul was aware of his role in history. The Apostle of Christ produced a flawless 'performance'. one that would put any rock band to shame. Flanked by Cardinal O’Fiaich and the future Bishop Lennon, he delivered all that was expected and more:

“The cry of centuries sends me here. I come as a pilgrim of peace. Let history record that at a difficult moment in the experience of the people of Ireland, the Bishop of Rome set foot in your land, that he was with you and prayed with you for peace and reconciliation, for the victory of justice and love over hatred and violence.”

The casketed remains of St Oliver Plunkett were brought to Killineer in ceremonial procession and, prior to the pontiff's arrival, a concelebrated mass commenced at 2pm. Traditional folk group the Fureys and Davy Arthur entertained the crowds until the Pope’s arrival at 5pm (via helicopter from Dublin‘s Phoenix Park).

A 1,500-strong mass choir welcomed the Holy Father with the song Cead Mile Failte, A Phapa Eoin Pol.

From the altar, the Pope’s first words were the sign of the cross as gaeilge. He venerated the relic of St Oliver, began the Liturgy of the Word and read the opening prayer. Later, he presented his homily on peace and reconciliation before the freedom of Drogheda - the town’s highest civic honour - was conferred on him and he signed the book of freedom. To close proceedings, he offered his blessing to his pilgrims.

Following his driveabout through the people, Pope John Paul II departed for Dublin Airport.
When Pope John Paul II lost his brave battle with illness on April 2 2005, the people of Drogheda remembered “their” Pope. They flocked in their hundreds to the Papal Cross at Killineer, with flowers, candles, whispered prayers and tears. The Pope’s words “of passionate pleading” for Ireland to return to “the ways of peace” are carved in stone on the memorial monument.

As hundreds of candles lit up the darkness, it was clear that September 29 1979 would never leave us.

Though expected, the death following long illness of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, on Saturday April 2 2005 shocked the world. It spelt the end of an era. Karol had sat on the throne of St Peter for 27 years and was a man of the times as well as a pioneer - he was the first Pope from a Communist country, the first Slave Pope, and the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years. He had also ascended to the leadership of the Catholic Church at the relatively young age of 58 and went on to become the third longest serving pontiff ever.

An exceptional orator and actor who spoke eight international languages and possessed enormous physical energy and stamina, ‘The Great Communicator’ became the most-travelled Pope in history, visiting over 120 countries, continuing his mission even when he became frail through poor health.
He saw himself as an evangelist. He was. brought the Catholic church closer to the people and, through his tireless endeavours, became a symbol of peace and international unity.

On the world stage, Karol Wojtyla contributed enormously to Poland’s escape from the Iron Grip, the rise of the solidarity movement, the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the end of the Cold War. He hosted the Interdenominational Prayers at Assisi in 1986, where representatives of all the world’s religions came together to pray for world peace and unity, and was the first ever pope to visit either a synagogue or a mosque.

He set an example to us all and Drogheda was proud to play its part in an incredible legacy one unforgettable Wednesday in September 1979.