On Monday, 1st October 1979, Maynooth was the venue where Pope John Paul II was to meet the seminarians of Ireland. Seminarians from all over the country were invited for the visit which was preceded by a Vigil of Prayer and Adoration conducted by Maynooth's Clerical students.
The proposed schedule for the Pope's visit was as follows:
Months of preparation had gone in to this event, with security, communications and public relations being the major headaches in the days before cell phones. Loftus Halls were converted into a press centre with rows of telephones for journalists to ring in their reports. Security was in the hands of the Gardaí, who feared that someone might try to take a shot at the Pope! The Superintendant insisted that he would have a garda up every tree in the park to look out for snipers (we called these the 'special branch'). Visitors were assigned passes, which were issued by the Gardaí, and had to be worn and visible. Corrals were set up in the park, and people assigned to fixed areas.
The vigil started at 11.00 p.m. on a damp and foggy night. The College Chapel was reserved for the seminarians of Ireland, while the Priests, Missionaries, Religious Brothers and Sisters and the many lay invitees of the college arrived from the small hours to stake out the best places in the Park near the podium. Everyone was checked by the Gardai, while the seminarians were packed into the College Chapel. Eventhough the College Chapel has 454 stalls, 874 seminarians had been invited, so two seminarians shared nearly every stall.
Fog enveloped the College that morning, and the helicopter which was to take the Papal party from the Papal Nuncio's residence could not fly as planned at 7.30 a.m. As time ticked slowly on, seminarians alternated with one another to have some time sitting in the shared pews. James Galway and the New Irish Chamber Orchestra performed from the Gallery and they extended their recital with many additional pieces on Galway's golden flute, while all waited...
Meanwhile, the President, Monsignor Michael Olden was in constant touch with the Papal Nuncio's residence as the options were discussed. The weather forecast said the fog should lift soon, but an alternative plan was discussed, of driving to Maynooth from the Nunciature. Pressure was building because later in the day, the schedule included a visit to Limerick, Shannon Airport, and following his flight to Boston, a Mass on Boston Common. Bishop Marcinkus was accompanying the Pope (at 6ft 4in he was the Pope's bodyguard, and a formidable man) but his interest was in getting to the United States on time, and so he advocated that Maynooth should be dropped from the schedule. Cardinal Ó Fiaich would have none of it, and it must have been the prayers of the assembled faithful in Maynooth that were heard, because the fog lifted, and the helicopter was able to fly, though way behind schedule.
Applause broke out in the park, as the damp assembly first heard, and then saw the helicopters come into view. Monsignor Michael Olden welcomed the Pope and the recently elevated Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, and the party quickly walked to the College Chapel where a rapturous welcome was accorded to His Holiness. Pope John Paul II appeared to be taken aback, as not only did the seminarians clap, but like Christ's entry to Jerusalem, they cheered, and this did not appear to go down too well with our honoured guest. The young Pope blessed the seminarians as he walked up the aisle, climbed the steps and gestured with his hands for silence. He prayed for the students, and then read a prepared script to them.
Unfortunately due to the pressure of time, James Galway had to put his golden flute back in its case, and was not able to play for the Pope, who ended his visit to the Chapel with a blessing for the seminarians of Ireland:
The party left the Chapel via the sacristy, and went to the President's Arch for a Press Photo Call, where the Pope signed the Visitor's Book, and the College presented gifts to the Pope. They included a boxed leather bound edition of Healy's Centenary History Maynooth College 1795-1895, and the Polish edition of Walter Macken's Irish Trilogy - Seek the Fair Land; The Silent People; A Scorching Wind - also boxed and bound in leather.
At this stage, Bishop Marcinkus, whose roots were in Chicago, was most agitated about the schedule, and wanted to take off immediately for Limerick. Cardinal Ó Fiaich and Monsignor Olden had waited a long time for this opportunity, and were not going to lose it. While Marcinkus thougth they were on their way to the helicopter, they walked the Pope down the cloister towards Saint Mary's. The Cardinal said to all of us close by, "Ná bac leis", and we headed for the podium at Saint Mary's where the Pope got another rapturous welcome from the many religious and lay in the assembly. Once again, he read from his script, prepared for the Priests, Missionaries, Religious Brothers and Sisters, and followed that by blessing the foundation stone of a library that the College hoped to build and would bear his name. He then took a drive around the park in the pope-mobile, so that everyone present got to be within about 10 metres of the Pope.
Finally, the pope-mobile took Pope John Paul II back to his helicopter, and as he came, he departed, leaving us with hearts overflowing. Monsignor Olden celebrated a Mass of thanksgiving on the podium, with many visiting and College priests concelebrating. It was a great day in Maynooth.