Folksy grandeur of a papal visit
The visit of Pope John Paul II at the RAAF Base Fairbairn in 1986 ... Pope John Paul II blesses a young boy as he meets the people at RAAF Base Fairbairn. Photo: Supplied
Do any of you still have the giant foam plastic hand, the ''Hand of Hope'' you bought to wave to Pope John Paul II when he visited Canberra in November 1986? Do any of you still have the mass-produced periscope (a colleague recalls it being called something like a ''Pope-a-scope'') you bought to use to enable you to catch a glimpse of him, hoisting it above the wall of human backs in front of you?
Oodles of this column's readers will have been among the estimated 90,000 souls (and I use that word advisedly) who attended John Paul II's Papal Mass in Canberra on November 24, 1986. But documents just unearthed by ACT Archives (the Archives says they are its ''find of the month'') show a planning meeting in January 1986 at which authorities imagined a congregation (and I use that word advisedly too) of probably 150,000 or more.
A January 17, 1986, minute written by the Department of Territories' John Turner describes that planning meeting that had just come to pass. It seems to show him winning a wrestle with ''Church representatives'' present at the meeting over where in Canberra the Mass should be held.
The Pope kisses the ground on his arrival. Photo: Supplied
''Venues for the public Mass were discussed noting the planning should be on the basis of 150,000 attending [although] in fact estimates put forward varied from 100,000 to 250,000.
''The preference of the Church representatives was for a national area such as ANZAC Parade but I proposed the racecourse/showground complex. My proposal was strongly supported by the AFP who endorsed my views on parking/traffic/general space problems of other venues. It was subsequently agreed that planning should be on the basis of the racecourse/showground … ''
Turner wanted a very roomy venue because, the minute says, ''overseas experience'' of hugely attended events showed that what was needed was six square feet per person, meaning you'd need 40 acres or 16 hectares for 150,000 people. The same ''overseas experience'' showed that vast flocks of people were required, for ''crowd control'', 15 shepherds (marshals, first aid personnel, etc) per 1000, thus 2400 for 160,000.
The front page of The Canberra Times from the Pope's visit in 1986.
And so, with all this emphasis on sheer roominess, the Mass went ahead at the inelegant but very practicable venue of NATEC (now thought of as EPIC, the National Exhibition Centre) insisted on by Turner and the AFP.
It was a huge undertaking. Some of the 1986 papal visit documents are all about the logistics of bussing people, including a host of schoolchildren from Catholic schools, out to the spiritual jamboree. ACTION dealt, in this, with the Executive Officer, Papal Office, a gentleman rejoicing in the authentically Roman Catholic name of Herby O'Flynn.
ACTION, proud but nervous, issued a press release warbling that ''ACTION is expecting the busiest day of its 60-year history next Monday''.
In the end the Mass was an enormous success. Pluckily, The Canberra Times took the considerable risk of sending an atheistic reporter (yours truly) to write about the Mass but the now yellowing pages of the November 25, 1986, edition of the paper show even me beguiled by the reverent but folksy grandeur of the event. Pope John Paul himself had been especially impressive as a speaker, every word of his sorrow at the state of ''a world profoundly disturbed by the effects of selfishness, violence and sin'' ringing with sincerity.
In official eyes, too, the papal visit to Canberra went almost miraculously well. The Archives' 1986 papers include a December 22 thank-you letter to the minister for territories, Gordon Scholes, (he was effectively the mayor of Canberra in those dark days before the boon of self-government) from Francis P. Carroll, Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn.
The archbishop wrote that ''As host Archbishop for the recent visit to Canberra by Pope John Paul II'' he wanted to thank the minister and everyone involved in enabling the event to be such a smooth-running, untroubled, joyous occasion.
But does any reader have, still, a Hand of Hope? They were unofficial merchandise and were a bit silly and vulgar but were great fun and very popular. We had hoped that the Canberra Museum and Gallery would have one, but no.
Your columnist blushes to report having had one and to having worn it to the Mass.
There, my report for the paper records, little Julian Menegazzo, 5, of Kambah, accepted with enthusiasm my offer of a lend of it to wave to the Pope. Both of us believed, after the Popemobile had chugged past us, that its VIP passenger had seen Julian's enhanced hand waving to him.