KILLINEER, Ireland — When Pope John Paul II made the decision not to travel to Northern Ireland during his 1979 papal visit due to security concerns, it fell to a farmer in the diocese of Armagh to offer his land to play host to an expected 30,000 attendees that were expected to travel down from the north to greet him.
Instead, when the papal helicopter landed, he was met with a crowd of 300,000, all signing in unison the traditional Polish birthday song “Sto Lat,” meaning “May you live to be a hundred.”
James Walsh, a longtime music director in the nearby diocese of Meath, quickly taught those lyrics to the crowd as they spent the morning waiting for the pontiff’s arrival. In an interview with Crux one week before another pope is due to arrive on the Emerald Isle, he closed his eyes and relived those moments.
“When that helicopter began to descend, you could feel the hair rise on the back of your neck. He [John Paul] was a young, fit man then and faith was alive, it was jumping around the field,” he recalled.
“If you go back and listen to the audio, you can hear us in the background singing the songs I had just taught the crowd.”
Part of the enthusiasm was, of course, driven by the sheer presence of the recently elected pope, while another part was the adrenaline fueled by an appearance that many thought unlikely and that was hastily planned.
A visit by the Polish pope to the North would have come during the height of “the Troubles” — the decades-long violent clash between Protestants and Catholics — and it was deemed inadvisable.
Just three weeks before he was due to touch down in the country, the parish priest in Killineer was told the pope would make a brief stop in this hilltop stopover on the road between Dublin and Belfast.
Killineer, which means “The Church of the shepherd,” was an old Christian settlement but an otherwise an unremarkable location. Yet, the pope’s message that day remains seared on the minds of many when he led with the words, “To all men and women engaged in violence, I appeal to you in language of passionate pleading. On my knees I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence and return to the ways of peace.”
“I appeal to all who listen to me: to all who are discouraged after the many years of strife, violence, and alienation — that they attempt the seemingly impossible to put an end to the intolerable,” he urged.
“Let history record that at a difficult moment in the experience of the people of Ireland, the bishop of Rome set foot in your land, that he was with you and prayed with you for peace and reconciliation, for the victory of justice and love over hatred and violence.”
Given the last minute arrangements for the trip, Walsh recalls that the setting was simple: very little formal seating, a Celtic Cross altarpiece designed, ironically, by a Church of Ireland architect, and a hastily arranged choir of 2,000 that provided the music.
Yet looking back on it, for Walsh, none of that mattered.
“There was a stunned silence among the crowd as he pleaded for the violence to stop,” he told Crux.
For many, including Walsh, that moment sowed the seeds for the eventual peace accords that would not be reached until a decade later, yet needed the moral authority of the pope to compel men and women alike to change their hearts.
Looking ahead to this week’s visit by Pope Francis, Walsh — who is once again leading a local choir from his diocese that will take part in the Pastoral Congress of the World Meeting of Families and the papal mass next weekend — described the experience as “awesome.”
“Not awesome in the North American sense,” he clarified, “but to be involved in this level again it’s awesome in the original English meaning of the word: awe.”
While Walsh is in no way Pollyannaish about the challenges that Francis will meet on the ground — a Church roiled in clerical sexual abuse scandals and a more secular Ireland — he believes there’s one major thing that Francis and John Paul II share in common that will prove useful for this visit.
“Both were energetic men who came from parish settings that influenced them. For John Paul, he came from a Church in Poland that had stayed alive in the face of countless persecutions for many years, and he helped them remember that identity,” said Walsh.
“For Francis, his experience in the global south has taught him to prioritize the rights of people and the equality of everyone and link them to critical issues of our day,” he said. “That’s what we need now.”
Today, in Killineer, the Celtic Cross that John Paul II stood in front of as he pleaded for peace still sits along the roadside, with stone monuments engraved in some of the most memorable lines from that brief visit.
When John Paul II died in 2005, thousands of Irish citizens once more returned to Killineer to hold a vigil for the late pope. Forty years later, his visit lingers on in the memory of those who surprised a nation by surpassing attendance expectations by tenfold, making it not just the most attended event in Ireland’s history, but a turning point for the country.
For people who were there such as Walsh, it also serves as a hopeful reminder that despite incredible obstacles, the unexpected is always possible.