The Papal Visit 1982

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For my parents’ generation this visit was to be of great significance. Given the sectarian nature of a Glasgow upbringing and the whole west of Scotland problem which pervades this small country it was felt that a Papal visit to these shores would never happen. To say they were overjoyed was an under statement.

Naturally there were dissenting voices, driven mainly by the fiery Glaswegian minister Pastor Jack Glass. He was infamous for travelling to Dublin airport in September 1979 for another Papal visit to chastise the thousands of Scots disembarking from the airport for the visit, bawling at them that the Pope was this, that and the other. The good natured replies of ‘Hullawrer Jack, hauzitgaun pal ?’ were perhaps not what he had in mind when the desired sore face was not forthcoming for the cameras.

There were more serious protests. In mid February 1981 Ian Paisley stormed across the sea to rally the troops. A huge protest demonstration was held in Glasgow but, in truth, not that many paid attention to it and that march was usurped by an even bigger trade union march the next week in protest over Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government.

When it was announced that some trees would have to be felled in the Park to accommodate the massive crowd for the Papal visit no one had perhaps appreciated the amount of horticulturist interest in Glasgow given the howls of outrage. The authorities calmed it all by announcing that even more trees would be planted after the event and that the park would ultimately benefit in the long run.

Some of you may recall travelling on buses and trains at the time and seeing wee circular red , white and blue stickers with the message ‘No Pope in Scotland’ on them. It was pretty pathetic really and was perhaps the advent of the ‘permarage’ mentality that we can often witness today on line. 

In April another significant event occurred. Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands and Britain declared war. With the Papal visit a matter of only weeks senior diplomats scurried around for a solution whilst my Father and his generation viewed the Falklands incident as a beastly conspiracy theory on the basis that the British establishment was trying to jeopardise John Paul’s visit.

Happily enough, a simple solution was found. John Paul would come to the UK but would visit Argentina shortly afterwards, quickly showing the world that the church would be seen taking no sides in this conflict, and he reprimanded both country’s governments for the folly of the war and their reluctance to find a diplomatic settlement.

Britain was a country in turmoil in 1982. Prime Minister Thatcher was in the early throes of her period of government and with the Northern Ireland problem, inner city riots (though none curiously in Scotland), industrial disputes, rampant unemployment  and, of course, the Falklands. Most ordinary people looked forward to the Papal visit with anticipation to brighten the gloomy domestic landscape. And eventually the time came…

Murrayfield saw John Paul’s first Scottish date. A youth mass had been organised and proved enormously popular with young Catholics. My own choice, as a 16 year old, was to either travel with the school party or with the local parish and I’m glad I went with the parish as we were designated seats for the stand. As three quarters of the then Murrayfield stadium was open terracing, it was to be a long day and although the weather was fine I was glad of that hard wooden seat and the shade that the stand provided.

The then Radio Clyde DJ Paul Coia, resplendently dressed in an all white suit, was the man charged with keeping the large crowd going until the Pope’s arrival. Shortly afterwards Coia was to be the first voice ever heard on the new TV station Channel 4. How time’s change. The highlight of the day was of the youngsters cheering every sentence John Paul uttered. Much to his frustration and then amusement he was cheered like a pop star and another memory of the day is of the entire stadium singing ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands’ as the Pontiff sat looking happily bemused.

It’s worth pointing out that in 1982 Pope John Paul II was probably the most recognisable person on the planet. Until the 1970’s previous Popes had sat in the Vatican and few had chosen to travel abroad and when they had they had not gone far. For Scots Catholics the Pope was an almost mystical figure and few would have even known what the Pope looked like up until the 1970’s.

John Paul changed all that by travelling extensively and taking himself to the people. He was caricatured in the TV series Spitting Image as being almost akin to a rock star with dark glasses, gold chain and an American accent, in view of the number of countries he had visited. This was not seen as offensive, more a recognition of how the man had become identifiable as the face of modern day Catholicism.

And so to Bellahouston Park on June 1st 1982 and a scorching summer’s day fit for a crowd of a quarter of a million people. I was in St Anthony’s parish in Govan and a request was made in the diocese for people to volunteer for stewarding duties. My Father and I were stewards and were issued with wee, highly visible, red berets with the Papal insignia on them and I still have mine’s to this day.

Perhaps the one thing that people mostly recall from that day is of the wee girl (who had a slight disability) making her communion on the altar, viewed by everyone on huge screens. She struggled forward courageously without assistance as everyone cheered and willed her on. Sounds emotional ? You bet it was, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. An older friend of mine was married that summer and was given the opportunity of being wed on the altar that day but refrained, the thought of taking his vows in front of all those people was too much for him.

There was much talk of disruption by protestors on the day but ultimately there were only a dozen hardy loyalists with a union jack flag outside Ibrox, with a couple of policemen having them in full view, and they were not going to spoil the day for anyone.

Being 16, my friends and I looked to see if we could spy any of our Parkhead heroes. Celtic were champions in ’82 (that was a right good summer) and I believe we spotted Tommy Burns. Pat Bonner and George McCluskey amongst the crowd and this was confirmed in Tommy Burns’ book when he states that they all ended up in the Honour’s Three pub in Pollokshields afterwards.

After mass John Paul eventually flew off into the horizon in his helicopter and the 250,000 people who were there that day were left with the memory. The media moved on to focus on the World Cup in Spain (Scotland actually qualified for major tournaments in those days) and the country went back to relative normality

There were cheeky calls to rename the park in John Paul’s name but they were not serious and the Bellahouston park it remained. The structure for the altar remained for many years afterwards and could be seen from afar. On closer inspection recently it was covered with twenty eight years worth of teenage graffiti.

I’m told that when a new Celtic supporters’ club in Cardonald started for the new season in 1982 that they tried to register it as ‘The Bellahouston June 1st’. They were informed by Parkhead that the name was unsuitable and they became the Cardonald number one who left for many years from Howden’s bar on Paisley Road West.

Now a new Papal visit is almost upon us. The protests are slightly different these days with a growing secular movement objecting about how their taxes are going towards paying for a Papal visit. It may be slightly different to 1982 but the sour taste of intolerance is there all the same. I’m a tax payer too and if my taxes can uphold the Royal family, MP’s expenses, nuclear weapons, the war in Afghanistan and a growing army of unemployable rogues then we can quite easily afford any expense required for Pope Benedict.

Let us pray…for another memorable Papal visit to Scotland.

Oh, and a bit of good weather wouldn’t go amiss on the day if you’re listening up there…

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