On the road to peace with St John Paul II

On the road to peace with St John Paul II Behind the scenes of John Paul II in Ireland: A Plea for Peace during its production.
Chai Brady discusses a new film about Pope John Paul II’s call for peace in Drogheda


The road to reconciliation in the North of Ireland was always going to be a long one, but St John Paul II’s visit to Ireland was a catalyst for peace according to a new documentary.

Admitting there was still violence decades after the then Pope begged the warring sides to “turn from the paths of violence”, Emmy-award-winning director David Naglieri maintains that it helped sow the seeds for the Good Friday Agreement and a better relationship between Catholics and Protestants.

John Paul II in Ireland: A Plea for Peace centres on interviews with prominent Catholic commentators, politicians, journalists and clergy and uses archived footage of the Troubles and St John Paul II while he was in Ireland. It is being released this month.

“Northern Ireland is not a perfect society, and there’s not perfect harmony between Catholics and Protestants and it’s not some kind of fairy tale film that says every problem is solved: now we put a bowtie on it,” Mr Naglieri told The Irish Catholic.

“Obviously there are still real divisions and these things take time. But the progress that was made, and the impact his words had, is what the film really wants to explore.”


The film focuses particularly on St John Paul II’s speech near Drogheda in Louth, on Saturday September 29, 1979, which was attended by 300,000 people, many of whom travelled from the North.

There had been plans the Pope would visit Armagh in the North of Ireland but the security situation continued to be perilous as the Troubles raged. Drogheda was chosen as an alternative venue as it is within the boundary of the Archdiocese of Armagh.

Referencing the recent visit of Pope Francis to Ireland from August 25-26, Mr Naglieri said people will be thinking “what impact can a papal trip have?”

“On that level I think it’s interesting for Ireland to take a look at what John Paul II accomplished back in 1979 in terms of planting the seeds for peace. And I think there’s a certain relevance and interest on our part to make this film for Ireland, to help Ireland – in a sense – reclaim some of its Catholic identity, to relive an incredible three days with John Paul II.”

“I think it’s also relevant for the global community. What is the role of the Church, what is the role of peacemakers? What is the role and impact of words spoken by leaders who are really driven to bring a message of peace?” Naglieri asked.

There are interviews with several prominent commentators including Baroness Nuala O’Loan, Mary Kenny, Editor of The Irish Catholic Michael Kelly, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Dr Diarmaid Ferriter, Rev. Harold Good, Dr Daire Keogh, Martin Manseragh, Fr Michael Neary and more.

During his speech, St John Paul II spoke of ecumenism citing the achievements of the Second Vatican Council and that “we are meeting with our fellow-Christians of other Churches as people who together confess Jesus Christ as Lord, and who are drawing closer to one another in him as we search for unity and common witness”.

St John Paul II said: “This truly fraternal and ecumenical act on the part of representatives of the churches is also a testimony that the tragic events taking place in Northern Ireland do not have their source in the fact of belonging to different churches and Confessions; that this is not – despite what is so often repeated before world opinion – a religious war, a struggle between Catholics and Protestants. On the contrary, Catholics and Protestants, as people who confess Christ, taking inspiration from their faith and the Gospel, are seeking to draw closer to one another in unity and peace.”

Based on conversation with Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, from the DUP, and Rev. Harold Good – who played a vital part in the peace process – Naglieri said after the Pope’s speech many Protestants’ negative perception of Catholics began to change which was a “crystallising moment”.

He said: “We do include in the film some of the cynical comments and I understand not everyone thinks John Paul II made a big impact and obviously we directly talk about the fact that the violence goes on for another two decades, but I do think what the film is ultimately about is how the seeds were planted. In some cases, it’s in the hearts of individuals, in some cases it starts to move a certain consciousness.”


St John Paul II lived a life that was full of suffering, which Naglieri says gave him “credibility” while addressing the people of Ireland.

The Polish-born Pope lost his mother Emilia when he was eight years old – she died in childbirth. His elder sister Olga died before his birth. Edmund, his brother, who was 13 years older than him, died from contracting scarlet fever during his work as a physician. The then Karol Józef Wojtyła (St John Paul II) was very close to Edmund, and was deeply affected by his loss.

Born in 1920, he was 19 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. He worked various odd jobs to avoid deportation to Germany. His father died of a heart attack when he was 21, leaving him with no immediate family.

St John Paul II decided to become a priest as the Second World War raged, and took classes in a secret seminary while dealing with the horrors of war and unrest.

After the war he has been credited with being instrumental in the fall of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe, which he struggled against.

“One of the things that really struck me about John Paul II’s life is all the suffering,” said Mr Naglieri. “This is someone who lost a mother as a young boy, then an older brother, then a father and his country was invaded by the Soviet Union and by the Nazis.

“The percentage of the population killed during the Second World War is just astonishing. And then of course he lived under Soviet rule and repression.

“He had seen so much of these horrors, he knew about divisions and he knew about the hatred that had spilled out in society and he had a very deep understating of that. I think that certainly gave him a credibility, and that’s something in the film that Seamus Mallon [former Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland from 1998-2001] references, he says that this is someone whose been through the mill himself and it certainly gave him an air of authority and respectability – and someone who could really speak to these issues in a way that perhaps other leaders could not.”

Over a 26-year papacy, St John Paul visited 129 countries spreading the word of peace.

Mr Naglieri said he had a “key role” in being a peacemaker during his travels, particularly in Latin America “where he travelled to a lot of countries that were torn apart by civil division and helped spark peace movements there a well”.

“It was this credibility that he brought, this experience that he had of great suffering, which in his case I think formed a very strong character and formed a character that understood the ability to get through suffering and what it took, and for him it was very much based on his Christian faith of course.”


David Naglieri grew up in New York but now lives in Connecticut. He always had a “deep interest in history” and began creating documentaries in 2006 after obtaining a degree in international relations.

“I feel as though Catholics who don’t really know our history, they’re kind of cut off from their roots, and I think if you’re cut off from your roots you start to drift,” he said.

“I’m really passionate about making historical films about Faith-based topics and about our Church history, it’s a very strong interest of mine.”

This will be the third film he has made about St John Paul II, with the first released in 2014 called John Paul II in America: Uniting a Continent. It won several awards and was nominated for an Emmy.

Connecting people to their past is a strong driving force behind Mr Naglieri’s work, while he also has a “fascination with great figures of history and of men who were really driven by their faith to accomplish great tasks”.

“When you look at the 20th Century it’s hard to top Pope John Paul II,” he added.

His inspiration for becoming a documentary maker in this genre was attending World Youth Days (WYD) in Rome in 2000 and Toronto in 2002.

He was 22 when he went to Rome. “I was very much inspired by Pope John Paul II, being in a crowd of 2-3 million young people was just an incredible experience for me, it gave me a much better appreciation for the universal Church.”


“You really sensed that you weren’t alone and then you sense the impact this man had and the authenticity he brought as he spoke about the Gospel, as he challenged us to bring forward the new evangelisation and to live our lives with Christ in mind. Then I had a very big transformation in my life, which influenced the direction of my studies after that.”

“So, in a certain sense to do a documentary, on say for example, his speech in Drogheda and the impact it had, is something I have had a personal experience with because I was in a crowd with him and I saw the impact he had on that crowd and I saw the impact he had on me.

“It’s mostly through these seeds that are planted and it’s through the awareness you get by being in a crowd like that which definitely inspires me.”

John Paul II in Ireland: A Plea for Peace will be screened in cinemas in both the Republic and the North of Ireland this month, with more information available at https://jp2inireland.com/