22 October marks the feast day of St John Paul II. While pope, St John Paul made a historic visit to Melbourne in 1986. The Master of Ceremonies for the visit was Archbishop Denis Hart, who came to know St John Paul.

Here, Archbishop Hart shares his memories of the visit, including the Pope’s visit to school children in North Altona, giving a sense of St John Paul; of speaking with him, praying with him, and celebrating Mass with him.

The visit of St John Paul, Pope, from 24-30 November 1986 was a truly wonderful moment of renewal of faith for the Catholic People of Australia: Canberra, Brisbane, Sydney, Hobart, Melbourne, Darwin, Alice Springs, Adelaide and Perth. These seven days were crowded with Masses, Liturgies, Meetings, and encounters with a wide diversity of our people.

John Paul would spend 27 years as Pope and have a unique influence on the world’s people. AS a great philosopher, teacher and pastor, he helped us to move together in deep faith to face the challenges of the modern world, in the spirit of Vatican II and in harmony with the revealed teaching of the Church.

St John Paul was a man of God: he really prayed the Mass. It was evident to all that this was our encounter with Jesus. To be on the altar with him was inspiring and a great lesson in prayer. You could really see his contact with God. On later trips to Rome, I could see his love of Our Lady as he prayed the rosary during sessions of the Synod of Bishops. His deep faith and remarkable learning, as well as his facility with languages also made him a remarkable teacher.

People who crowded to the Masses and meetings with him here in Melbourne could see how he engaged with us. He was not a remote person: we all felt that we had a Pope who was interested in each of us. He had the gift of making each person with whom he spoke know that we had his full attention and that he was with us perfectly.

This visit changed our attitude to the Papacy: St John Paul was our friend – as he certainly demonstrated in his meeting with the school children at North Altona. The powerful leadership and faith which had changed Poland, and had witnessed so much elsewhere was a dynamic force to enrich our faith. All of the groups: migrants, teachers, people from other faiths, priests, religious, teachers, people at the great Mass at Flemington, the sick in hospital, and our secular leaders were uniquely touched by his personality and words – as well as the love of God which shone out from him.

When I met St John Paul in Rome after the visit and later as a bishop he spoke of the long journey and his affection for the people of Australia. In this as in tireless journeys elsewhere, St John Paul witnessed to us that faith, prayer and daily life come together in the life of the believer to make us new again and challenge us to love each other as Jesus loved us.

The visit was for so many others and for me, and experience of faith which I will never forget. It reminds me always to be open to being changed.