It’s now 20 years since Fr. Brian McGilloway served Mass for Pope John Paul II in Rome. Brian entered the priesthood following the death of his wife Mary, who lost her battle with cancer. In a special piece to mark the recent canonisation of Pope St John Paul Fr. McGilloway recalls his pilgrimage from Derry to Rome for peace in 1988 and the spiritual journey which informed the most recent part of his life and led him to his meeting with John Paul II
At the end of my planning and all the preparations and just prior to heading off to Derry on this pilgrimage, my beautiful wife, Mary, a 45 year old Derry girl, gave me the devastating news that she had terminal cancer.
Mary was not only my wife but my love, confidante, real and total friend, and most importantly, my real nearness to God in this life.
She was beautiful, forgiving, bright, full of humour, wise and completely honest.
After Mass on Easter Sunday morning in 1988, celebrated by Fr Dan, I slung my heavy pack onto my shoulders and after getting photos taken, spent a little enjoyable time talking to all my old school friends and those who knew me at Ardmore.
As we passed the old Ardmore graveyard one of the Dixon family from Lisdillon came after me to ask for prayers for Mary Dixon who had terminal cancer.
I did not forget.
My brother Jim, who was then Commanding Officer of the Order of Malta in Dungannon, was there with most of his family and they would continue with me to until we arrived in Dungannon.
My brothers Thomas and John, along with their families were there and many cousins from the Waterside. I was overjoyed that many who walked with me as far as the Strabane Old Road were of other denominations and some having none.
At least we were ecumenical at the beginning as we so longed for peace.
We said goodbye to them when we had passed Irish Street estate which was where our protestant friends expected difficulties as there were some fears of trouble there.
No one bothered us, or probably if the truth were to be known, they agreed with what we were doing but could never be seen with us.
Jim’s family, and Thomas’ family continued on with me until just outside Strabane.
Then we were told through a message received by telephone, that there was to be an attack on us between Strabane and Omagh.
Jim suggested that we take to his car and head for Donegal Town to continue the needed 16 miles on Easter Monday morning.
We did this and on Easter Monday morning woke early to a beautiful Donegal morning.
The road from Donegal Town was difficult as it was very uneven and badly tarred, without the ankle boots that I was wearing it would have been worse on my feet.
The road to Belfast was painful but without any excitement and on getting on board the Liverpool boat I checked my pack for the days ahead where I would be on my own and then had a good sleep.
Arriving in Liverpool, in the early morning, all passengers prepared to disembark but were stopped by the police who seemed to be looking for someone.
They came straight to me and although all my documentation was in order and my letters well chewed over I was taken to one of the sheds and kept there for about four hours.
It probably was because of my story and the large backpack that I carried but there I remained for a good part of the day.
I was so fed up at the end of it. It would have been impossible to walk over the Pennines to arrive in Hull by the time the boat departed for Rotterdam the next day.
There was a deep longing to be at home in Colchester with Mary and not sitting here in a stinking shed.
So as soon as I was released I bought a ticket to Colchester to be at home.
There was no doubt in my mind that I would not continue the pilgrimage but I just had to see Mary.
My journey restarted from Harwich to Hamburg some weeks later.
The ship was comfortable and had good food, there was a comfortable reclining chair to sleep in and I know that there would not be any of the heavy handed police to await me in Hamburg.
My route would take me across Holland and when I had got to Germany I would visit some of the very famous churches.
Staying at cheap campsites along the Rhine I continued until I had got to the Moselle River where I really wished to travel along it to Trier.
In a church in Trier there is the seamless tunic that Jesus wore at His trial before His crucifixion.
The tunic that the soldier threw dice to win.
My German was sufficiently good enough to find it and there I was able to take some time to think of everyone who asked me to pray for them.
The priests there were very kind and not only gave me a blessing but also shared their meal with me.
There could only be a couple of hours here before moving on again.
The German people were very efficient but always very aloof. There was never any time in which I had any cause for fear.
Italy is a country full of kind and generous people who will always go a long way to help a stranger.
I always have felt at home in Italy but there are always those who want to show they are superior to the working people.
This I found when I went to a cleric’s residence.
The cleric himself had just come out of the door to get in his limousine and in the best Italian I could muster I pleaded with him for a blessing.
In case he did not understand me I knelt down and made the sign of the cross. He shouted to the guard and I was escorted away.
The story does not end there and as I made my way up the hill to the campsite for the night I called into this lovely little chapel outside the campsite.
I was in the middle of my rosary when I was requested to leave as this beautiful church was the church where all the very rich were married and a wedding was happening on the following day.
I was directed by lovely people to a grander church further up the hill, I found it hard to believe what was happening.
Nothing seemed to ever go right on the walk.
As it was evening I was not expecting a Mass to be celebrated but it was happing – in English - I stayed until the end of the Mass and a jolly little fat Bishop, wearing white gloves and with regalia dating back before Vatican II stood at the wonderful portals.
I went to him and asked for a blessing.
Naturally I was thinking that I would be refused again but the Bishop said in excellent English “I have been waiting for you.”
It was such a shock that I did not stop after the blessing to ask him what he meant, I just wanted to go and thank God for His great kindness to me. Two days later I was across the Pennines and going hot legged towards Rome.
At the campsite in Siena my stave almost got me killed as my usual practice was to get on the road about five in the morning.
A camp guard, in the half light, thought I was carrying a gun and gave chase to me waving a pistol.
When I am getting chased with a gun I can beat the three minute mile!
After all the miles and days to get to Rome and having been granted a personal audience with Pope John Paul II and praying that peace would come to Derry I was greatly thrilled to make it.
That week the great Archbishop Lefebvre was excommunicated and our Pope was really saddened.
I was told that if I waited I might be seen if there were any spaces to fit me in.
Although a ticket was obtained by the English College for me and I went to get His Holiness’ blessing in a general audience I never did get to meet him.
After waiting for almost two weeks in a campsite on the outskirts of Rome, at a place called Nomantano, I had to beg for a leftover seat on the aircraft back to England as my funds had all gone.
The buskers and the Romanies gave me a farewell party leaving that campsite in Nomantano, where I had stayed during my time in Rome.
Blessed Pope John Paul gave me his blessing, shook my hand TWICE, and gave me a rosary on the 25th January 1994 when I, as a seminarian, served Mass for him at the Basilica of St Paul’s outside the Walls at the commencement of my studies.