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September 8, 2014

Next week will mark the 30th anniversary of Pope St. John Paul II's Sept. 16-17, 1984 visit to Edmonton, an historic moment for the local Church. The 10-day papal visit was, in fact, a landmark in Canadian Catholic history, a period during which the attention of the nation was riveted on the pope, his message and the Church itself.

Pope John Paul returned to Canada twice – once in 1987 to meet with aboriginal people in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., and again to attend World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002. The Fort Simpson stop had been planned as part of the 1984 visit, but postponed when inclement weather prevented the papal plane from landing.

There has, however, been no impetus since 1984 to stage another nationwide papal tour. The first one taxed the Church's resources to the limit, indeed had relied on the federal government to fund a significant part of the expenses.

The opportunity to see the pope in one's own backyard in 1984 was repeatedly billed as "the experience of a lifetime." That billing is proving to be true.

While those fortunate enough to be there may treasure their memories of that visit, its lasting value was more than an ephemeral experience. Pope John Paul left us with a treasury of Church teaching applied to the Canadian reality. If some of that teaching is now dated, applying to a reality that has changed, most of it retains its value.

In Edmonton, the pope, then a strong, vibrant man, shook as he proclaimed "the poor South will judge the rich North." In other places, he spoke about the value of human work, the family, peace among nations, evangelization and the rights of aboriginal people.

Pope John Paul has since been declared a saint. However, he was never a plastic saint to be venerated, but not heard. He was a man whose words changed the world. The words he spoke to Canadians should not be left in dusty archives. We need to find ways to make the teachings of the Pope John Paul's 1984 visit live and challenge Canada today.