Pope John Paul II belonged to the whole world, but in a special way, he also belonged to Canadians.
He came, not only as the Pope and Head of State for the Vatican, but also as a pastor, brother and humble man.
Only 3 years after surviving a near fatal assassination attempt on his life in 1981, John Paul II came to Canada and undertook an exhaustive 11 day tour of Canada giving over 30 major speeches.
On September 9, 1984, Pope John Paul visited Canada for the first time and during an incredible eleven day, 15,000 kilometer cross-country tour, millions of people turned out to greet him, and at times, enduring some periods of the least hospitable weather Canada – in September – has to offer!
From his first stop in Quebec City he visited Trois-Rivieres, Montreal, St. John’s, Moncton, Halifax, Toronto, Winnipeg-St.Boniface, Edmonton, Yellowknife, Vancouver and Ottawa-Hull as well as visiting several notable shrines (Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre, St. Joseph’s Oratory, and Mary’s Shrine in Midland).
Just outside of Quebec City, the Pope’s first scheduled stop – was a visit to a hospital which takes care of physically and mentally challenged children. A number of the children were in the lobby as the “welcoming party” – along with their family members and staff.
As a tour media advisor – who is non-Catholic – stated and in his words: “seeing the joy on the faces of those children when the Pope came to greet them is something I will never forget”.
While in Toronto, Pope John Paul spoke of Canada’s multicultural heritage: in fact he made a point of emphasizing the country’s ethnic and cultural diversity.
In English and in French, Pope John Paul spoke, of themes he strongly supported: solidarity and justice, peace, the place of youth, the elderly and the dignity of the human person. He passionately reminded us of the centrality of God in our lives and in society.
Upon his arrival at the Namao Airport near Edmonton, the Pope was met by a small number of dignitaries including Archbishop Joseph MacNeil, Premier Peter Lougheed and Chief Jim Omeosew of the Samson Band. He was cheered by 100,000 people along the way to St. Joseph Basilica where he led an interfaith service of 1100 + clergy.
On Monday, the Pope celebrated Mass attended by 125,000 people, a day that was cold, rainy and extremely windy and closed by blessing the people and then said: “Canada is a big country. It is almost a continent. It is sometimes sunny, sometimes rainy and (a long, delighted pause) sometimes windy!”
While in Edmonton, social justice was on his mind as he pleaded for the wealthier, northern regions of the Americas to be attentive to the needs of those living in poverty in the South Americas.
However, upon his departure from Canada in 1984, there was a deep sadness in his heart.
Due to severe foggy weather, his plane – after circling many times – was unable to land in Fort Simpson, where crowds had gathered to meet him. Instead, his – and several other planes – were diverted to Yellowknife.
According to former Premier – Nick Sibbeston, – there were 3000 people who were waiting below and who were most appreciative of the fact that a world leader of Pope John Paul’s prominence would travel to their community to visit with them!
They included many Aboriginal people who had traveled great distances, by water, and by land, then, once they reached Fort Simpson had to camp in cold, rainy weather conditions.
To the great disappointment and sadness of all, the long-awaited visit was not possible.
During his time at the airport in Yellowknife Pope John Paul met and shook hands with many people – including Senator Denis Patterson – and many others who hurried to the airport; as word of his arrival quickly spread!
And, speaking via a radio connection from Yellowknife airport tower, he addressed the crowd in Fort Simpson, greeting the people of Northern Canada, rendering respectful homage to First Nations in this vast region of North America.
And, before his plane departed from Canada, a promise was made.
As told to me by Mr. Stephen Kakfwi – who was President of the Dene Nation, when the Papal visit was organized – and as part of a delegation, which had travelled to the Vatican earlier that year to invite John Paul to visit them in Fort Simpson.
And quoting Mr. Kakfwi: Pope John Paul in his final remarks before leaving Ottawa said: perhaps Providence will allow me a second opportunity” unquote.
He had promised to return and he did so quietly, making the trip on Sunday, September 20, 1987, to the great joy of the Aboriginal communities – reassembled in Fort Simpson.
It was inspiring to have witnessed him devote a single trip to fulfill his promise to First Nations of Canada and his visit was a pointed challenge to Canadian society to heal its long troubled relationship with First Nations.
Mindful of Aboriginal people’s rich roots in Canada he challenged them to remain true to your vocational witness of promoting the religious, cultural and social values that will uphold their human dignity and ensure their future well-being.
I quote “Your sense of sharing, your understanding of human community rooted in the family, the highly valued relationship between your elders and your young people, your spiritual view of creation, which calls for responsible care and protection of the environment all these traditional aspects of your people need to be revered and cherished.”
From the beginning of Pope John Paul’s papal ministry he insisted on meeting young people and enjoyed tremendous popularity with them.
In June 2002, Toronto hosted the 17th International World Youth Day and several hundred thousand young people from 172 nations descended upon the city.
More than 350,000 people packed Exhibition Park for the opening ceremony with Pope John Paul.
The following evening more than one half million people took part in the outdoor Stations of the Cross and by the CBC’s estimate the world-wide television audience that night was more than a billion – people in 160 countries!
The Saturday evening candlelight vigil drew more than 600,000 people and the concluding Papal Mass on Sunday gathered together approximately – 800,000 people.
One of the most profound lessons that Pope John Paul II taught us is that life is sacred, no matter how painful his life had become.
Where the old and the infirm are too often put away in homes and forgotten the pope was a powerful reminder that age and suffering are part of being human and that the sick, the disabled and the dying still have great value.
Rather than hide his infirmities including Parkinson’s disease, which lead to his inability to walk and finally, an inability to speak he chose to let the world see what he was going through.
In the final act of his life the athlete was immobilized, the distinctive strong voice was silenced, and the hand that written several books and numerous encyclicals, could write no more.
Though broken and bent at the end of his earthly pilgrimage, Pope John Paul II crossed the threshold of history, standing as tall as a giant.
Thank you honorable Colleagues and I hope that you will support Bill C-266.