WHEN Pope John Paul was shot and wounded by a Turkish assassin, Mehmet Ali Ağca, in St Peter’s Square, Rome, in May 1981, amongst the global reactions of shock and outrage was an understandable degree of speculation about his visit to Britain in 12 months’ time.

Catholic sources told the Glasgow Herald that it wouldn’t be possible to say whether the visit – the first by any Pontiff to Britain– would go ahead until the results of surgery were known.

Chaos erupted in Rome after the shooting. “Traffic just came to a standstill”, said a woman who worked for Vatican Social Communications. “My husband was stuck in a jam for three-and-a-half hours, and people ... were just crying, crying on the streets”.

The 60-year-old Pope underwent immediate surgery, and a vigil was held in the square. By the following evening he was well enough in his hospital bed to speak to visitors, telling them that he forgave Ağca.

At length, the Vatican confirmed that the Pope would, after all, be going to Britain.

Come May 1982, however, the trip was hanging in the balance because Britain was at war with Argentina in the Falklands. As Charles Moore relates in his biography of Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister was upset by the idea that visit might be cancelled, given all the preparatory work that had been done and that so many people wanted to see the Pope.


Her solution, Moore writes, was to make the visit not a state one but a pastoral one, with no Cabinet ministers involved. The solution was accepted, and John Paul landed at Gatwick on May 28. Alighting from his Alitalia plane, he followed his personal tradition by kissing the tarmac.

Huge publicity attended his visit. “For the Catholics on this island”, reported the Herald’s Anne Simpson, “it was not the second coming, but the first. The leader whom they had loved for centuries had swooped down from the sky at last”.

In an address the Pope urged people to “remember the victims of both sides in the conflict in the South Atlantic” and and asked people to join him in prayer that “the God of Peace will move men’s hearts to put aside the weapons of death and to pursue the path of fraternal dialogue”.

The 40-hour-long Scottish segment of his visit began on May 31 when the Pope landed at RAF Turnhouse, and knelt down to kiss a piece of well-kept turf beside the runway(it was subsequently removed and transplanted into the garden of the Archbishop of St Andrews & Edinburgh, in Morningside).

“There is about him still”, Simpson wrote in her latest article, “the gentle strength, that curious meld of mystic self-containment and exuberant magnetism. But occasionally there is a pain in the eyes, reflecting anxiety for the world and perhaps a private pain”.

The Herald: Pope John Paul II addresses the crowdsPope John Paul II addresses the crowds

After addressing a youth rally at Murrayfield stadium, attended by 50,000 ecstatic young people, the Pope shook hands, at the Church of Scotland’s Assembly Hall in Edinburgh, with the Rt Rev Professor John McIntyre under the shadow of the statue of John Knox. It was the historic first meeting of a Pope and a Moderator of the General Assembly on Scottish soil and, the Herald noted, signalled a symbolic reconciliation of 450 years of antipathy and sectarian warring; even so, two groups of “chanting and singing Protestant extremists” waved anti-Pope posters as he made his way up the Mound.

A quarter of a million Catholics crowded into sun-drenched Bellahouston Park for a Mass on Tuesday, June 1. Among them that momentous day was 20-year-old Maureen Cameron, who had been at Murrayfield the previous day.

“As the park got busier and busier I remember looking round and wondering how on earth we would all get out of there”, she said in an email this week. “As the time drew nearer everyone was becoming more excited about seeing the Pope and the honour of him saying mass. In Scotland. In Glasgow! The cheering and joy when he arrived was wonderful.

“He travelled round the park in his Popemobile and I was lucky enough to be fairly near. The Mass was beautiful and the singing of 250,000-plus people was like nothing I have heard since. At the end we all sang Will ye no Come back again. A truly beautiful and memorable day which will live with me forever”.

“It was one of the most memorable and enjoyable days of my life”, recalls Ernie Horan, of Alexandria. “My memories of the day include experiencing the beautiful sunshine. I worked in the shipbuilding industry at the time and I remember the following day in the shipyard where all of the Catholics could be identified by the sunburn that they had endured”.

Gordon Casely, of Kincardineshire, says: “As an Aberdonian, denominational divide passes me by. So as a simple Presbyterian, I was delighted through a Catholic newspaper colleague to gain an entry card to the papal visit. I wanted to be present to see and hear a genuine world leader.

“We lived in Glasgow’s West End in those days. So how to get to Bellahouston that blazing hot June 1st? I’d recently taken up running, and was training for what turned out to be the first of 37 marathons so I hit on the idea of taking the Subway from Hillhead to Cessnock, and running to Bellahouston from there.

“We spectators were all corralled according to our parish. I forget the name of the parish with whom I was a guest, but they all made me so welcome, particularly when they learned why I wanted to join them. Bellahouston proved the largest event ever held in Scotland – and there was almost a party atmosphere as we all gathered.

“There was such a cheer when the Pope flew in on his helicopter, and then louder cheers as he toured the ranks in his Popemobile. I felt fortunate to be there, and to see him, and so grateful for the friendship shown to me that day”.

It was an epic day in every sense: the weather, the magnetic presence of the Pope, his gentle humour, the overwhelming size of the crowd, the communion offered by 1,000 priests and specially-commissioned lay people; the long queues at the papal souvenir tents; the 3,000 police officers on duty, supported by 7,000 volunteer stewards. Hundreds of people needed treatment for heat exhaustion, sunstroke, nose-bleeds and fainting.

As he departed for his last engagements, in Wales, on June 2, John Paul told Scottish journalists at RAF Turnhouse: “Thank you for your hospitality. It was wonderful. I love your country”.

Widespread satisfaction was expressed with the way his visit had unfolded. The Scottish Tourist Board was delighted. The Auxiliary Bishop of Renfrew said the visit had been particularly useful to Glaswegians, who “always underestimated themselves”.

The Pope departed for Rome on June 2, his six-day visit at an end; “My God bless you all”, were his parting words.

John Paul II died in April 2005, aged 84. His funeral was attended by presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens.One obituary said he had raised the papacy to a political and social influence it had not enjoyed since the Middle Ages. Said another: “He was seen in the flesh by more people than any other pope in history. He made more than 100 international journeys...”

“He was the most consequential pontiff of the modern era”, author Tina Brown records in her new book, The Palace Papers. “He helped end communist rule in his native Poland and eventually all of Europe”.

“It’s difficult to underestimate the significance of the visit of Saint John Paul II to Scotland in 1982”, a spokesperson for the Catholic church said this week. “For Scottish Catholics it was a great moment of affirmation and recognition. It was also the beginning of the end of the distrust and wariness which had characterised the relationships between Protestants and Catholics and the start of an ecumenical journey which led to the fellowship and mutual respect which exists today.

“Beyond that it was a moment of wider historical significance which started with the most famous man on earth kissing Scottish soil and culminated in a Mass at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow attended by over 300,000 people, which represented the largest gathering in Scottish history.”

Rt Rev Dr Iain Greenshields, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, said: “The historic visit of Pope John Paul II to Scotland in 1982 represents a milestone in the religious history of Scotland in recent times. It was a moment of particular spiritual significance for the Catholic Church in this country and for the Christian community as a whole".