The Visit of
Pope St John Paul II
to Christchurch
23 November 1986

The first and so far only visit to New Zealand by a Bishop of Rome was significant for both Catholics and the wider community. The Polish-born Pontiff arrived in Auckland on 22 November 1986. He received a state welcome at the airport before celebrating Mass in the Domain. The Pope then flew to Wellington that evening and stayed at the Apostolic Nunciature in Lyall Bay.

On Sunday 23 November, the Pope had several meetings with dignitaries before presiding over a Mass at Athletic Park. The next morning he flew to Christchurch, where he held an ecumenical service at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament and celebrated Mass at Lancaster Park, before flying to Australia later that evening.

Pope John Paul - Thinking my Country

SPECIAL PRESENTATION – ‘Polish Waves’ radio programme – Special Edition “Thinking My Country – Pope St John Paull II ”

‘Between the Waters’ – Polish Legacy in NZ (Charitable Trust) was established following the 2017 celebrations of 145 years of Polish Settlement in Canterbury & NZ – as an initiative to further acknowledge this legacy.

The aim and main purpose is to actively advocate and promote Polish heritage as part of NZ ethnic identity, provide forum to present, explore, preserve, share and celebrate Polish uniqueness. And also, to encourage other nationalities to acknowledge and share their heritage, as whatever is different – enriches us, this land and this country.

A Papal Visit

In the history of Christendom no Pope had travelled this far from Rome. Then, Pope (later Saint) John Paul II visited New Zealand. His 48-hour stay concluded in Christchurch on 24th of November, 1986.

The Pope had been to New Zealand before, as a Cardinal from Poland. On that visit he met post-World War II Polish refugees. Survivors from that group and their families greeted him with great enthusiasm when he returned as Pope.

The Pope’s status in New Zealand was that of official guest of the Government. His Pastoral Visit was a major occasion for all New Zealand. It was embraced and celebrated by the public and widely covered by religious and lay media. Reactions ranged from fascination to euphoria.

A delighted response was expressed by Christians of all denominations. They appreciated the Pope’s zealous promotion of Christian unity and many attended the morning ecumenical service he led in Christchurch’s Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. The archives of the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch contain letters of heartfelt thanks from participants in the service representing a host of churches.

A letter from an Anglican nun of the Community of the Sacred Name expresses her joy in the Pope’s acceptance of the silk stole which members of her community had made for him. The nuns were proud of their handiwork and beamed beatifically when the Pope’s private secretary examined it at some length. As an attendant priest remarked, they probably did not realise the secretary was scrutinising the stole for any nefarious substance. There wasn’t any, and the Pope wore the stole throughout the ecumenical service.

Meanwhile, Catholic nuns of the Carmelite Order had made the communion breads and embroidered the Papal Coat of Arms to decorate the Papal chair for the open-air Mass to be celebrated by the Pope at Lancaster Park in the afternoon. Ten of the convent’s 14 nuns attended the Mass and received Holy Communion from the Pope. It was the first time since 1933 that Carmelite nuns had gone beyond their own walls, except for individual medical appointments.

The Papal Visit included time in Auckland and Wellington, ending with a day in Christchurch, whence the Pope flew to Australia. Archival files bulge with newspaper coverage of the tour, much of it in full-page display featuring large photographs. Television and radio were “all over” the tour. That any adult New Zealander could have been unaware of the Pope’s presence is unimaginable.

Not so well known, however, is the extent of organisation that went on to ensure success of the tour. A large team, in various committees, handled the logistics of a complex array of aspects: coordination between The Vatican and New Zealand, establishment of a commercial company, involvement of government services, liturgical services, production of books and mementoes, business sponsorships, budgeting, fundraising, and many more. A papal visit cannot just happen.

 The venture began with an invitation from the New Zealand Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the New Zealand Government to the Pope for a pastoral visit. The Pope accepted and work began. In September, 1985, Catholic layman Patrick Gaines was appointed national director “for all Catholic and Government coordinated arrangements”. Only 14 months were left to prepare for the Pope’s arrival. Gaines’ experience in managing high-level events was the key to a successful project.

A post-tour review, written by Gaines, is held in the diocesan archives. It describes the first four months as a time for laying foundations. A National Advisory Board to the Bishops’ Conference was formed to coordinate planning on a national basis.  Gaines, as the board’s director, then flew to Melbourne with the board’s secretary for a combined Australia – New Zealand planning conference.

Next, Gaines, with Wellington’s Cardinal Tom Williams and the New Zealand Ambassador to The Holy See, flew to Rome for further planning. Also attending were representatives of Australia and Fiji, which the Pope had agreed also to visit. At this conference it was agreed that the Pope would visit Bangladesh and Singapore as well.

Regional planning centres were set up at Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Each centre would encompass two dioceses. So, the Christchurch and Dunedin dioceses were partnered, as were Auckland-Hamilton, and Wellington-Palmerston North. These centres began more detailed planning in the New Year, 1986.

A National Planning Office was set up to coordinate the functions envisaged for the visit. However, Gaines’ review indicates a lack of efficiency in this arrangement. So, in April, 1986, the national coordinating structure was changed “to add ease of planning and access to New Zealand bishops and permit greater flexibility”.

An advance party of four Vatican officials arrived in New Zealand in early June to complete the “outline itinerary” and other details of the Pope’s visit. These included liturgies, homilies, movements, venues, construction contracts, State legislature changes, media arrangements, preparation and distribution of publications, transport links, insurances, emergency services, security plans by police, traffic and military personnel for the so-called “Operation Rome”. All required prior approval by The Vatican as well as the New Zealand Bishops’ Conference and the New Zealand Government. All was accomplished by the 6th November.

Not all was plain sailing. Administrators of Lancaster Park, then Christchurch’s major sports ground, “played hardball” in negotiations for the hire of the ground where the Pope would celebrate the open-air Mass. Two burly Christchurch Catholic organisers helped secure a fair deal. They were Hillary Kearney, a no-nonsense first-class rugby referee, and Kevin Meates, a 1950s All Black lock and Canterbury stalwart. Both men were as forthright as they were business-like. The park was hired for $1000, while the total costs associated with the Mass there amounted to $95,000.

As a final check, The Vatican’s Monsignor Magee flew to New Zealand just two weeks before the tour was to begin. He conducted full rehearsals of the planned liturgical events listed for Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

At last, on the 22nd November, Pope John Paul II landed at Auckland Airport, to be greeted by the Prime Minister, the Governor-General, other civic and church dignitaries and a Maori welcome. Travelling with him was a support party of 18 Vatican officials, four Vatican security officers and a Vatican TV crew. Further groups of support staff and international news media representatives followed.

The tour passed quickly and any hitches were minor. As Gaines wrote: “The tour was completed without problems”. Nevertheless, along with the praise and gratitude he expressed to many, his review contained some criticisms.

Highest praise goes to the Catholic laity for their “goodwill”, “tireless input” and “generosity” in the two national cash collections that were held. Gaines says this applied to all sections of the community but he picks out for special commendation members of the Catholic Women’s League He says their response to every request for help was willing and reliable. They were “a tower of strength”.

Gaines writes that some displeased Catholics alleged “too much involvement of the laity in the top decision and planning roles”. His response – “the more laity who are involved, the better”. He was annoyed, too, by the efforts of “liturgists” to take over the planning of events.

He compliments the religious orders of priests, brothers and sisters, in particular the Marists, who made a huge contribution to the tour’s success. However, he chides some parish priests for failing to support the Papal Visit. This failing indicated a degree of disdain for the visit, reflected in lower than expected numbers attending some events. The open-air Mass at Lancaster Park, for instance, drew only half the 50,000 people who had been expected to attend.

Those who had stayed away might have thought themselves lucky when they heard that a sudden cloudburst had sent hundreds of people rushing from the open arena to shelter in the grandstands. The Pope saw some humour in the downpour and quipped: “You have clearly prepared special weather”.

Gaines lauds the companies and government agencies that provided goods and services for the tour. It showed “a tremendous amount of goodwill in the community, especially to the Pope, and also to our Church”.

He expresses disappointment with Maori involvement in the tour. Cardinal Williams had stated as an aim: “to give the Maori proper recognition”. However, Gaines notes a lack of interest among Maori.

Such a Pastoral Visit must be expensive. At the outset, Christchurch Bishop Denis Hanrahan urged his fellow bishops for an “emphasis on simplicity and the need for minimum expenditure”. Cardinal Williams assured him there would be “no extravagance or ostentation”, adding that the National Advisory Board was “aiming for a surplus rather than a deficit”.

The Cardinal also backed Bishop Hanrahan’s proposal for the ecumenical liturgy to be held in Christchurch. Neither noted that the typed script for the eight-page booklet containing the order of service was dated on the front cover as “Monday 24 November 1984”. The firm that printed the booklet failed to spot or amend the error.

The cost of the tour was first projected as $765,000. The figure grew to about $850,000. The shortfall was mostly funded by churchgoers. A company, Papal Tour Aotearoa 1986 Ltd, was set up to manage the financial side of the tour. It predicted a cash surplus which would come through sponsorships, publications of books, licensing of souvenir items, and such means, as well as the two special collections in the churches. It was agreed that entry to events would be free.

One problem identified by Gaines was the poor distribution through parishes of a commemorative book. This led to low sales. Many copies had to be dumped, with parishes bearing the cost. In the diocesan archives is a letter written by a Mercy Sister in Christchurch complaining bitterly of the wastage and the drain it inflicted on parishioners’ finances. She labelled the case “extortion” and sought an apology. In the spirit of Christian humility, a highly placed official admitted the errors and apologised gracefully.

An anti-Catholic cadre, taking advantage of the publicity surrounding the Pope, circulated a venomous pamphlet laden with erroneous hate-speech against the Church, the papacy in general, and Pope John Paul II in particular. Its message was completely overshadowed by the positive response to the tour from New Zealanders of all faiths.

The impact of the vile pamphlet was nil. Other hitches in the tour were quickly forgiven and forgotten. All this must have affirmed the fruitfulness of the massive planning undertaken by Gaines and his team for the visit by Pope John Paul II.

Author: Michael Crean

Memories of the visit

In 1986 I was a young minister serving in the St. Albans Methodist Parish with my wife Lynne.  I had taken a keen interest in the international dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Methodist Council which was inaugurated after Vatical II.  I would read the documents that emerged from the dialogue and found them a stimulus in my spiritual growth and appreciation of the ecumenical vision.

My recent family background is Methodist, but further back I had Catholic forebears.  My mother’s paternal grandmother had travelled with her sister – two young teenagers – from Ireland to the colony and entered domestic service on a farm in Halswell.  They brought with them a brief letter of introduction and commendation from their parish priest: “Mary and Annie Cahill of Carnew, Co. Wicklow – sisters – are nice, very good quiet steady little girls. Francis Sinnott – pp, Tomacork, Carnew July 2, 1883.”

Knowing of my interest in liturgy, Jocelyn Armstrong, then general secretary of the Conference of Churches in Aotearoa New Zealand, invited me to prepare prayers for the liturgical welcome for Pope John Paul II at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Christchurch.  So I went about preparing a gathering prayer, intercessions and a concluding prayer for the service, during which Jocelyn Armstrong would offer a welcome and the Pope would speak. 

I regarded it an honour to have been invited.  Though John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint would not be published until 1995, the Pope had already made ecumenism a priority for his church.  Through various statements and symbolic acts those who belonged to the churches of the Reformation could see that here was one for whom the unity of the church was not negotiable.  Positive messages were being given and welcomed around the world.

At the same I was aware that there were issues that could not be ignored.  In 1979 two Catholic theologians had been required to give an account of their work.  Edward Schillebeeckx and Hans Kung were questioned regarding Christology and infallibility respectively.  This had caused alarm in theological communities and at times we struggled to interpret what was happening.  The climate appeared to be changing.

John Paul II had played a key role in liberating Poland from communism.  He was a strong advocate for the faith in a secular Europe and a fierce defender of freedom in the face of repressive socialism in Eastern Europe.  Yet at the same time he seemed critical of creative developments in the church in Latin America.  He confronted liberation theology which offered hope for millions with a sharp critique.  Having written my master’s thesis on the movement of Christians for Socialism during Allende’s years, I followed the debate within the Catholic Church closely.

Half way through my preparation I was informed that the prayers that I would write would be submitted to the Vatican for approval or otherwise.  The pressure was on.  I would have to tread carefully. Nothing inferior, sloppy or too adventurous would be accepted.  Nor could the prayers be didactic. And yet I wanted to set the liturgy within the context of Aotearoa New Zealand, reflecting our experience of faith and our struggles in this land.  Not all Methodists are accustomed to showing deference to ecclesiastical authorities.

As I look back on the experience I find that I am satisfied that I found a way of holding these priorities together.  When the text was returned from the Vatican there was no red ink on the draft or corrections required – evidently they were acceptable.  The opening prayer included the following element of penitence:

Forgive your Church the scandal of division:  our lack of trust, our want of love.

May we who are called to be peacemakers be reconciled in Christ:

we who are called to bear fruit be nourished by your Spirit, so that your Church might be a sign to the world, one holy community.

The prayers of intercession were varied with prayer for ourselves, the church, the leaders of the churches, for our nation and the wider world.  Praying for the church in our land:

May our common life reflect a passion to live the gospel in humility.

Help your church to find a distinctive shape in Aotearoa enriched by treasures of Maori spirituality, responding to cries for justice in this time and place.

In those prayers devoted to the leaders of the churches, it seemed appropriate to express gratitude for the ministry of John Paul II.

We give thanks for the apostolate of Pope John Paul II.

We celebrate his defence of the dignity of every person in the face of dehumanisation.

The concluding prayer that I wrote was led by the Pope himself.  Putting words into the mouth of the Pope is something that I had never imagined doing.  It was, I realised, an awesome responsibility.  In a strong Polish accent the Pope read the prayer which focused on the pascal mystery and the mission of the church.

Gracious God, as we offer our life to you make our joy complete.

Renew our commitment to one another, to the poor and the oppressed, and to those searching for faith.

Do not let us fear the way of the Cross for sacrifice brings hope and with hope there is the promise of justice, unity and peace.

As it happened, the event was filled with joy and hope of a reconciled and renewed church.  The presence of the Pope was an encouragement for those who had prayed and worked for the unity of the church and a sign that for the Catholic Church, the commitment was “irrevocable.”  At this stage in his pontificate the Pope had assumed superstar status with an unrivalled popularity.  As he passed closely by in procession I was struck by the Pope’s aura.  He reaffirmed for me that in many ways at important times, he would speak for all Christians.


Contributed by Rev Dr Terry Wall who is a retired Methodist presbyter.  Recently he spent two years as acting secretary of the National Dialogue on Christian Unity.  He is editor of the newsletter of the NDCU published online in Advent and Pentecost.

Special thanks to ‘Between the Waters’ Polish Legacy in NZ; Michael Crean; Maurice Needham and Dr Terry Wa