It was a sweltering day on Knavesmire, and there was a real buzz among the thousands who had been gathering there all morning.
But they hadn’t come to see the latest thoroughbred sensation take on all comers in the Juddmonte International. No, the crowds gathered on Bank Holiday Monday May 31, 1982, were there to be part of history. It was the day Pope John Paul II came to York.[column width=”60%” padding=”10%”]
Thirty years ago York hosted an open-air mass by His Holiness, and for those who were there it was a day they’d never forget.
In some ways the day was its own kind of miracle. A year earlier the Pope had been gunned down in Rome. But he recovered and even overcame the diplomatic difficulties caused by the Falklands War to make it to Britain.[/column][column width=”30%” padding=”0″]Click here to see a nine-minute film of the Pope’s visit in the Yorkshire Film Archive[end_columns]
On her blog Isadora101 recalled that “the whole city seemed to gather on the racecourse on the day Pope John Paul II visited York”.
“I packed a lunchbox and joined the other 26,000 people who arrived in York on special trains. They made their way to Knavesmire in a vast human column, it was a happy smiling march to the site where we were all to witness seeing Pope John Paul in person.
“More than 2,000 pilgrims had already spent the night on Knavesmire, the site of his visit and thousands began to join them from the break of dawn onwards.
“On the way, they could buy a whole range of official souvenirs from one of 30 stalls. Profits were earmarked to help offset the £1 million spent on the York visit. In the event, however, £220,000-worth of stock was left unsold.
“By the time the Pope was due to arrive, some 210,000 people were gathered there. They were standing in 1,000-strong corrals, separated by crash barriers. The Pope had spent the morning in Manchester before his helicopter touched down on York turf, it was 2.08pm- some 23 minutes late.
“He embraced the Archbishop of York, Dr Stuart Blanch, before climbing into the famed Pope-mobile to tour among the huge crowd.
The Times’ correspondent was there too, and reported that the Pope invited the crowd to renew their marriage vows and pledge themselves to one another in a “total union of love”.
“The renewal of vows was a fitting end to what was one of the most informal occasions of the Pope’s visit so far. Thousands of families streamed into the York racecourse in the Knavesmire throughout the morning. As they waited in the hot sun they sang hymns and pop songs, led by entertainers, and listened to readings from John Donne.
“Knavesmire was perhaps a fitting venue: its ground, the Roman Catholic press office said, ‘was made holy by the blood of men and women who died for their faith’.
“It was here that the so-called York Tyburn was established in 1190; a gallows upon which, nearly 400 years later, many Roman Catholics were executed for refusing to accept the Act of Supremacy of 1535 which made it high treason to refuse to acknowledge Henry VIII as supreme head of the Church in England…
“Not everyone was in a family. Sister Mary Clare, a Poor Clare nun, had not been out of her convent, apart from visits to her dentist, for 50 years. Sister Mary, aged 73, said she had been warned to expect ‘funny things’ but had not seen any. ‘Everybody is so happy,’ she said.”
Ten years after the Papal visit, the Catholic Herald spoke to Father Jim O’Keefe, who was press officer for the occasion.
One of his first tasks, he told the paper, “was dealing with a minor rumpus over the grisly execution of 49 Catholic martyrs during the Reformation”.
“Was it right in these ecumenical times local newspapermen wanted to know for the Pope re-open old wounds by speaking on the very spot where they had died?
“But for Fr O’Keefe, John Paul’s presence provided a triumphal opportunity to reassert a message of hope in the face of persecution for all denominations. ‘It was a statement about the right to worship God whatever your faith.'”