Saint John Paul II in Jamaica 25 years ago


Thursday, August 09, 2018

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Today is the 25th anniversary of the arrival of Pope Saint John Paul II in Jamaica for a two-day State visit. While he was welcomed by the local Roman Catholic Church with its low, single-digit percentage of the population, and by some Protestants, there was great objection to his visit by the local anti-papists.

When Pope Saint John Paul II arrived here I wrote for the now-defunct Jamaica Herald. He arrived on a Monday and at that time my articles appeared on Mondays. I wrote that while the Roman Catholic Church awaited the Pope's visit “with excitement”, others “braced for it as they would for a hurricane”.

Many predicted all sorts of disasters that would befall Jamaica by the pope's visit. There were all sorts of silly statements made by persons who contradicted themselves when they said the pope had no real authority. If he did not have any authority, how could he do the things that people were predicting? It was the hurricane season and many wished for a hurricane to hit Jamaica just so that they could blame the pope.

On September 1, 1993, some three weeks after the pope's visit, a trailer jack-knifed somewhere on the Queen's Highway in St Ann. This was the 'proof' that some anti-Roman Catholics were waiting on to feel vindicated for their nonsensical utterances. Nevertheless, we remember Christ's promise that the gates of hell shall never prevail against the Church.

For the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1993 I was part of the anchor team at Radio Jamaica, and the country had just celebrated 31 years of political independence. Now that we are 56 years independent, and with Jamaicans more educated, would there be the same sort of nonsense talk today if Pope Francis were to come to Jamaica?

In the Spanish era the population of Jamaican was mainly Roman Catholic. But, with the coming of the English in 1655, the Roman Catholic Church was banned in Jamaica in keeping with the policies of the Government of England at the time and the Church of England (Anglican) became the established church.

The ban of the Roman Catholic Church lasted 136 years from 1655 to 1791, but the effect of the ban was 137 years as it was a year later that a Roman Catholic priest arrived here. The Roman Catholic Church in Jamaica was always viewed as the church for foreigners. When the Roman Catholic Church was restored in Jamaica, its members were mainly Haitians and Spaniards living in Jamaica.

This first Roman Catholic priest to arrive after the ban was lifted came from Haiti. He recorded baptisms done in 1799 in French as that was perhaps the only language he knew. In later years other Protestant and evangelical churches entered Jamaica. Many of them were even more hostile to Roman Catholics than the Anglicans.

At the same time one should be grateful that religious hostilities in Jamaica do not often turn into violence. Despite its humanity, I believe, as a Roman Catholic, that it is the Church that Jesus Christ founded on the Earth and that the teaching authority was given to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

Many local Roman Catholics are converts and will tell you of the negative feelings they had for the Roman Catholic Church before finding out the truth. One such person is the Roman Catholic Bishop of Montego Bay Burchell McPherson. He became a Roman Catholic at 24 years of age, and I knew him when he stated adamantly that he would never be a Roman Catholic.

At the time of the visit of Pope John Paul II, the paedophilia scandals had not yet been blown out of proportion. While popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis have condemned it, and apologised, it is a small minority of priests, bishops and one cardinal who are guilty.

There are over 400,000 priests and the number of convicted cases is less than 5,000 worldwide. But that number is enough to highlight a different one every day for about 20 years and give the impression that every priest is guilty. And even then most of the instances are an accumulation of such sins over decades, sometimes even more than 50 years.

True, such sinful acts by the clergy should never be condoned. And since they should never be condoned it is time that there be an investigation into the clergy among all churches, including those that sanction acts of homosexuality among its members.

In my experience as a counsellor, most homosexuals and paedophiles are married men with children. But the Roman Catholic Church will never take the stance of “who are you to talk?” and call names because we teach that detraction from the good that people do by exposing past sins that may have been forgiven is a sin.

The day before the pope's visit in 1993, I was invited to be on the old JBC Television for a panel discussion on the pope's visit. Actually, I enjoyed myself, as my favourite hobby is to defend the Roman Catholic Church against its opponents.

Why was Pope Saint John Paul II granted a State visit? Diplomacy aside, perhaps then Prime Minister P J Patterson had his eyes set on more foreign exchange into Jamaica. Roman Catholic foreigners flew into Jamaica just to see Pope John Paul II. Jamaica also got some advertisements in the foreign press.

St John Paul II was born May 18, 1920 in Wadowice, Poland. He died on April 2, 2005. His mother died when he was nine years old and his father died when he was 21. During the Second World War, when Germany occupied Rome, he did forced labour as a slave breaking stones. Seminaries were banned during the period and he attended an underground seminary to study for priesthood. Beatified on May 1, 2011, Saint John Paul was canonised April 27, 2014. His feast day is October 22. John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years and the first from a Slavic country.

Michael Burke is a research consultant, historian and current affairs analyst. Send comments to the Observer or

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