Papal Visit 1982 - Memories #1

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This is the first article of many to follow to mark the 40th anniversary of the historic visit of Pope St. John Paul II. This and subsequent articles will be from those on duty at any point during the visit and off duty memories also from those fortunate enough to be able to see the Pontiff at any point during his visits to locations in England, Scotland and Wales.

The first article comes from one of our members, Peter :-


I am privileged to have been in a position to serve, however insignificantly, in connection with two Papal visits.

In 2010 with brothers from the Guild, and now retired from the Police Service, I was able to offer my services stewarding in Westminster Cathedral for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI. However, it is the experience of the visit of Pope John-Paul II in 1982 which is etched upon my memory as one of the most enduring episodes of my 27 years service as a Special Constable in the Metropolitan Police Service.

1982 was a particularly wonderful year in our family, since it when our first daughter was born. I think that, since encountering “JP 2” at World Youth day, my daughter has never quite forgiven me from refraining from shaking his hand. (more on that later).

I don’t recall exactly how the invitation to serve in the forthcoming visit reached me but when it came I recall my excitement, and my determination not to be missed out. I immediately volunteered. I don’t remember the procedure at this point, but I know I was allocated to the celebration of the Sacrament of the Sick at St George’s Cathedral Southwark on Friday May 28th . First problem: As I was allocated a weekday event, I would need to seek leave of absence from my civilian occupation – teaching in a Catholic school. The Headmaster had already submitted my name to the Education Authority as one who might be called upon as a Police reservist if the Falklands war took some unexpected turn; and now my employers were being asked to give me time off for another policing commitment. As it happened, the Education Authority were keen to show their commitment to faith schools, and I was allowed the time off with full pay. Enough of this – and onto the day.

Having had a rehearsal for the event the previous weekend or thereabouts, the great day arrived. I was to take responsibility for security at the cathedral podium, where His Holiness was to address a gathered audience of Catholic faithful (incidentally including my own parish priest), as well as the world’s press and television. I had a team of Knights of St Columba assisting me. This was a non-uniform duty, and I was issued with a red beret, an arm band with the letters CPG, and an ID badge. (I later passed these to the Met historical collection).

Before the event, I felt quite proud as a youngster when a Special Branch officer came and asked me if I had any concerns about the security. I pointed out the windows from the building facing the podium. He assured me that Special Branch were already aware of these. We heard that John-Paul was in the building. A little later, a man of short stature, apparently a priest, arrived at the podium from inside the main body of the cathedral. Two of the Knights challenged him, but he pushed passed them. (A couple of weeks previously, a disgruntled priest had attempted to assassinate the Holy Father with a bayonet at Fatima.) My alarm bells rang, and I grabbed hold of the priest, and said something like, ‘No you don’t Father.’ He patted my hand, and showed his Vatican security pass. I guessed he was trying out the security, so released my grip – but kept very close on him.

Then the great moment arrived. His Holiness walked passed where I was standing. He was shaking hands with all and sundry. I stepped back, rather than taking his hand. I knew that my responsibility was to scan the gathering for any possible threats; and although my ‘little priest’ had now blended into the Papal entourage, I was still keeping an eye. Pope John-Paul read his prepared address then, as my memory serves me, he walked through the Cathedral speaking to many of the sick people who were gathered there. Once he was gone, I assisted in the distribution of Papal blessing cards to the sick pilgrims. I was also able to keep one for my 3 month old daughter. (See above).

Rightly or wrongly, I felt I had done my duty properly in not having shaken the hand of Pope John Paul II – but it did leave me with a feeling of regret. This was amplified when a uniformed PC showed me a Rosary which His Holiness had given her as he had entered the Cathedral, and asked me what it was !.

What a wonderful privilege it was to serve at this event.