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JPII in Australia: The moment I was tackled by the Federal police during Pope John Paul II’s visit to Darwin in 1986

St John Paul II in Australia

Man of faith: Pope John Paul II holds a koala during his 1986 visit to Australia. Photo: CNS

The Catholic Leader journalist Mark Bowling reflects on his memory of John Paul II’s visit to Darwin on November 29, 1986 when he was working on a radio news story of the papal visit.

THIS month marks 30 years since Pope John Paul II visited Australia.

In six-and-a-half days, from November 24-December 1, the 66-year-old pontiff visited every state and territory, travelled more than 11,000km, attended 38 functions, and attracted huge crowds. 

In Brisbane, he celebrated Mass at Brisbane’s QEII Stadium, and was greeted by adoring crowds at City Hall. 

The biggest event of the papal tour, in Sydney, attracted more than 200,000 to an open-air Mass at Randwick Racecourse. 

Do you have a story of Pope John Paul II’s visit?

Etched in my memory is Saturday, November 29, 1986 – a day when Pope John Paul would travel more than 5000km, crossing the continent, and arrive in the Aboriginal heart of the nation.

As a young ABC reporter based in Darwin my instructions for the visit were clear – start by joining the airport throng greeting Pope John Paul II, and then immediately file for the next national radio bulletin. 

The pontiff’s schedule for that day was remarkable and gruelling. 

His day began half a continent away in Melbourne, addressing a group of unemployed in a Mass at Elwick Racecourse, then visiting St Paul’s Cathedral, attending an ecumenical service at the MCG, visiting a parish in North Altona, addressing clergy and seminarians at St Patrick’s Cathedral, and celebrating a second Mass at Flemington Racecourse.

A few hours later, the papal jet touched down in Darwin, and when his aircraft door opened he felt the blistering humidity of the Top End tropical buildup.

The popemobile slowly passed a jubilant crowd sweltering in the sun behind the wire lining the tarmac. 

There was loud and enthusiastic singing and guitar-playing from one group from the Neocatechumenal community of Australia, and a young man blowing a Shofar (a Ram’s horn trumpet) caught the pope’s attention as he passed.

I remember thinking how agile and composed Pope John Paul looked. 

Remember, he had been shot and wounded five years earlier.

I marvelled at how he forgave his would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Agca.

I hurriedly composed my brief radio story in my head, thinking about how to capture the excitement by mixing in the sounds of cheering and singing to match my words about the pope’s arrival. 

Then I started a determined 400m dash to file my story.  

In an era before mobile phones I had planned my route to the nearest phone box, on the far side of a red-dirt no-man’s-land on the airport outskirts. 

Suddenly, without warning I was tackled from behind, nose into the red dirt. 

I was pulled to my feet and held by two men in suits.

“Federal police. Who are you?” one of them barked.

“I’m a reporter, ABC,” I said.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

I nodded towards the phone box in the distance. 

I realised I was shaking. They both appeared hyper vigilant.

“Trying to get to that phone booth to file a story,” I said.

Their grip loosened. 

One of the officers shook his head, clearly annoyed at this security distraction away from the main game of the pope’s entourage. 

The other whispered into a walkie-talkie. “All clear,” he said. 

One of the officers offered me a blank warning: “Next time, walk, don’t run. That way, no trouble.”

The other offered: “We don’t like surprises.” 

I didn’t question their authority or their actions. 

After all, their job that day was to protect the pope, just as mine was to file my story. 

I headed off, walking briskly, not running, straight for the phone box. 

I caught a fleeting glimpse of the popemobile moving out of the airport gates and down the Stuart Highway.

Pope John Paul II’s exacting schedule was running like clockwork. 

He arrived within minutes at the Darwin Showgrounds and celebrated Mass, adorned in garments hand-painted with indigenous Tiwi Island designs. It was a sea of colour and excitement. 

Nobody cared about the sweltering noon heat. 

To meet the pope, many in the adoring congregation had travelled hundreds of kilometres from indigenous communities scattered across northern Australia.

“Today I am learning how truly vast your country is – from Melbourne to Darwin, and from here to Alice Springs and Adelaide – all in the same day,” Pope John Paul II proclaimed.

“The pope has finally arrived and wishes to greet each one of you in the love of Christ.”

As quickly as he arrived, the pontiff was jetting to Alice Springs, where there was a glitch with the popemobile travelling to the next open-air celebration at Blatherskite Park.

The vehicle had overheated and the pontiff sat quietly praying until the problem was fixed. 

When he finally arrived, Pope John Paul delivered a powerful speech, addressed to “the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders”.

It became one of the enduring moments of his Australian tour.

“Your culture, which shows the lasting genius and dignity of your race, must not be allowed to disappear,” Pope John Paul said. 

“Do not think that your gifts are worth so little that you should no longer bother to maintain them. Share them with each other and teach them to your children. 

“Your songs, your stories, your paintings, your dances, your languages, must never be lost.”

And then a lyrical and enduring rally call from the pontiff came.

“If you stay closely united, you are like a tree standing in the middle of a bushfire sweeping through the timber,” he said.

“The leaves are scorched and the tough bark is scarred and burned; but inside the tree the sap is still flowing, and under the ground the roots are still strong. 

“Like that tree you have endured the flames, and you still have the power to be reborn. The time for this rebirth is now.”

It was now late afternoon. Pope John Paul stepped aboard his jet headed for Adelaide, for a final event of the day when he lit an Advent candle for Peace.

I was inspired by the events of the day; the pope’s enormous stamina, his ability to simply meet the physical demands of long hours, cross-continental travel and the pressing crowds.  

For a nation watching, his fortitude and inner strength were on display – a faith leader who truly talked the talk and walked the walk.

By Mark Bowling
Mark BowlingMark Bowling is a multimedia journalist for The Catholic Leader. He has previously worked for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.






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