It was 1987, the Marian Year and a few days before the Feast of the Assumption, that I met Pope John Paul II.
My audience with the Pope had been arranged by the Papal Nuncio in London, via Cardinal Hume, but I was still an Anglican when this meeting took place. The photograph was taken by L’Osservatore Romano.
Twenty seven years have passed and Pope John Paul II will be made a saint tomorrow. I offer a short semiological analysis of the photograph and some background detail.
The Pope is commenting on the Rocamadour badge on my track suit top, saying that he loves that Marian shrine because it is the oldest in France. (I have a Lourdes badge below it.) The fellow to my right is wearing a Terrence Higgins Trust t-shirt and on the back is written “THT Safer-sex Roadshow”: he had removed his track suit top seconds before the Pope met us and deliberately attempted to cause a provocative incident, but nobody bothered to read the t-shirt so he went unnoticed. On my left, in Anglican Franciscan habit, is Brother Eric SSF.
The context of this meeting and this photograph was my 1987 charity bike ride from Walsingham to Constantinople, under the ecumenical patronage of Cardinal Hume, Archbishop Robert Runcie and Metropolitan Anthony, stopping at every Marian shrine on route, praying for people with AIDS and raising funds for the Terrence Higgins Trust. The two people either side of me in the meeting with the Pope were driving a support vehicle accompanying my bicycle.
I became a Catholic in 1992 and it is enormously difficult now to think myself back into that moment in 1987 when I met John Paul II in those circumstances. It was all about social action and “raising awareness”. The people either side of me in that meeting had their own agenda (as I was later disappointed to discover) and the Church is now fully up against the consequences of that agenda. I was simply doing what I had often done before, pitting myself against the road and raising money: this time across the whole European continent in the heat of summer, and I nearly died a week after meeting the Pope, when crossing the mountains from Bosnia into Greece (but that is another story).
I now rather regret my naïvety and my uncritical enthusiasm for what I was involved in at that moment when I met a saint – the only time in my life that I have done so – for now it is clear that the agenda of so many people I worked alongside in those days was to undermine the Church.
All I know is that I responded to the Gospel to meet the needs of the sick. I met a Pope and I can happily reflect in my old age that I shook hands with a saint. The complications we meet in life can sometimes be reduced to such simple truths, while the agendas of the worldly-wise turn to dust.