What lingers is Pope John Paul’s charisma, not his messages

Thirty nine years ago, I’d just completed a tour of the key sites for the momentous visit of Pope John Paul 11 in my role as commentator for the continuous coverage by BBC Northern Ireland.  We were to comment off- air from RTE in Donnybrook. There was no way to  get round the island in time between Dublin, Drogheda, Knock, Galway and Limerick.  Swift movement from site to site was only possible by helicopter and flights were strictly restricted.

Among my companions were the outgoing head of religious programmes the liberal Presbyterian Rev Moore Wasson and the incoming and even more liberal Fr Jim Skelly, accompanied by Fr Jack McCullagh. We were greeted very warmly at communications command centre in Dublin Castle by Bishop Edward Daly who we all knew well.  In Maynooth  we were handsomely  received by the President of the college and at Knock by that remarkable ecclesiastical  entrepreneur  Fr James Horan.

The scale of the welcoming lunches sticks in my mind. They were like continuous  medieval feasts, with the seats occupied by ever changing diners and the tables constantly replenished with platters of meat and great dishes of spuds and vegetables; no alcohol though that I can recall, which was just as well for weren’t  we all driving?

This was the Church at its most benign and hopeful.  Vatican 2 had changed the atmosphere from the princely authoritarianism of John Charles McQuaid.  I have a bundle of letters, many of them expressing gratitude that BBC Northern Ireland had recognised Catholics by covering the visit in full.   This surprised me even then.  What else could we have done? But the gratitude which would seem inappropriately deferential and  Uncle Tom-ish today was a measure of how far the BBC had advanced in a decade and perhaps how far society as a whole had yet to travel.

Pope Wojtyla  appeared  before assembled hacks at the papal nunciature in Dublin to give us his blessing . You would have to have had a heart of stone not to be affected.  He spoke knowingly of the journalists’ role in spreading the word in their own terms.  In default of any agreed anthem we struck up “ For he’s a jolly  good fellow.” The Pope cupped his ear with his hand to catch the words.  “I hear you think the Pope is a good fellow,” he beamed. We roared cheers back.

This was the new age of ecumenism, on the surface a time of desperately needed reconciliation although still poorly examined below.  Paisley had come to prominence not over nationalist politics but over religion, over the exposure of anti-Protestant persecution in mixed marriages like Sheila Cloney’s in Fethard-on -Sea Co Wexford in the 1950s. In this atmosphere his antics were quietly deplored by many perhaps most Protestants . Were not Catholic bishops now quietly practicing accommodation over marriage? And had not Protestants  discovered that Catholics could read the Bible after all and could  even think for themselves? The cult of Marianism adopted by the Pope and belief in apparitions like Knock’s were mild embarrassments that could be overlooked.  But Paisley had been half right.  It turned  out the bigger persecution was against Catholics. What he chose not to see was the beam in his own eye, producing  a different kind of servitude in which each minister was his own little pope.

In 1979 for all his drawing power and  the powerfully argued  advocacy, the monarchical authority of the Pope was severely limited, just like his more modest successor’s today.

Going live from Drogheda – which is at least in the Armagh archdiocese if not in the North – the spine tingled to hear the Pope’s  “ on my knees I beg you” to the IRA. I don’t think anybody seriously  thought it would be heeded even though some claim that the seeds were planted then. On a single horrific day only a month before, the IRA had assassinated Lord Mountbatten and carried out the Narrow Water ambush, killing a record number of eighteen soldiers.  I was at Narrow Water and saw the pathetic scraps of human being. This was an organisation in no mood to meekly lay down their arms.

But his plea and the visit as a whole   eased the sense of isolation that Northern Catholics undoubtedly experienced , underlined by partition and greatly increased by the Troubles.

As for the rest.. In those days mobile OBs were still big and cumbersome: there were no neat little sat vans  for conducting  interviews on site to break up the inevitable  longeurs before the Pope arrived . It was just us in the commentary positions and the big panoramic pictures. The burden of filling in was massive.  The Pope’s message was uncompromisingly conservative. To me privately his charisma was giving reactionary views a good name. In the long waits I managed to resist the crazy temptation to say so and risk disrespecting the  intense sacramental experience of many of our audience. In commentary there is a basic rule, that you never talk against  picture, and certainly not such powerful pictures as those. Only when his  Aer Lingus  747 was climbing into the sky  did I wonder how long his messages would last. The answer: far shorter than seemed possible in 1979.

A very sad footnote; The commentator for Radio Ulster, the warm hearted, witty  and  spirited  Fr Jack McCullagh later a professor at Maynooth, died five years ago under the shadow of child abuse allegations which he denied.

This magisterial piece by former Irish Times editor Geraldine Kennedy chronicles the key changes in the Republic.


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