A personal account of St John Paul II’s 30th year anniversary meet with Indigenous Australians


Darwin resident Dean Dempsey was in Canberra recently spending some time visiting his ACT located brothers Dominic and Paul, whilst also attending the engagement party of his nephew Matthew.

He has also made visits to the Australian War Memorial (AWM) cross-checking some war history involving his father.

That he was in the nation’s capital on the weekend of the 30th year anniversary of St John Paul II’s 1986 papal visit to Alice Springs, proved both fortuitous and providential.

Fortuitous because he seldom visits Canberra, so the timing was strong and providential because he was able to give a personal account of the late Pope’s meeting with Indigenous Australians 30 years ago.

At the time of the papal visit, Mr Dempsey was employed as the Protocol Officer (PO) for the Northern Territory (NT) Government.

Making it all the more interesting is that he was the only PO based in Alice Springs and so it meant that large portions of responsibility for the Pope’s visit fell on his shoulders prior to the arrival of the Pope.

Speaking with the Catholic Voice this week, Mr Dempsey fondly recalled his collection of the event.

“I remember that six months out from the November 29 visit in 1986, it was announced that the Pope was coming for his first visit to Australia,” he said.

“Then three months later we found out that he specifically wanted to come and meet with Indigenous Australians at Alice Springs which meant that planning operations went into over-drive.

“As the Protocol Officer for the Northern Territory, it was my job to ensure all organisational requirements for the Blatheskite Park venue where the Pope was speaking were secure and in place.

“I also had to deal with the 125 person strong media (which was largely Italian), secure the Pope’s transport arrival and departure areas with police and ensure the sound system and crowd control barriers were adequate for the occasion.”

In his time as a PO, Mr Dempsey also organised visits for the Queen of Denmark to Uluru and the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to the Alice Springs School of the Air, during the 1988 bi-centenary year.

Mr Dempsey said there was something special about His Holiness’ visit to Central Australia.

The now saint entered the gathering walking in between the crowd which had formed the outline of a curved man-made dreamtime snake.

“I remember getting to shake St John Paul II’s hand,” Mr Dempsey said.

“No words were spoken but he just had a presence, a unique aura about him which was hard to describe and one could just see that he had an instant connection with the first Australians.

“I was that excited that I wanted to call my parents at the time, but I knew they would be at Mass in Adelaide.”

St John Paul II visited Adelaide on the same day as his Alice Springs sojourn, but his flight was delayed due to a fierce electrical, rainy and windy desert storm.

“I remember as soon as he got into the car to go to the airport, the thunder, lightning and wind that had been threatening throughout his homily, just stopped and the rain came bucketing down.

“It was if the heavens had opened up as a sign pouring graces upon his visit.

“Later that night when everything was packed away, protocol and the police met for a debriefing.

“What emerged was that the Pope, whilst waiting for the storm to lift, was seen walking and praying the Rosary at the airport as he was waiting for his delayed plane flight to Adelaide.”