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Greenpeace Visits the Pope

The activists' papal audience began with a comic cloak-and-dagger deportation from Paris.

Rex Weyler 10 Sep
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[Editor's note: This excerpt is adapted from GREENPEACE: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists and Visionaries Changed the World, Vancouver journalist Rex Weyler's history of the group's first eight tumultuous years. Enter to win tickets to an upcoming Greenpeace benefit concert or free copies of the book.]

In 1972, after successfully protesting U.S. nuclear tests, Greenpeace took on French atmospheric testing at Moruroa Atoll in the South Pacific.To arouse disarmament sentiment, Greenpeace chairman Ben Metcalfe and his journalist wife Dorothy flew to France.

Ben and Dorothy Metcalfe and their secretary Madeleine Reid arrived in Paris at the end of May, 1972. They made their way along the Seine for a planned protest against French nuclear testing at Notre Dame Cathedral. At Quai St. Michel, French security agents disguised as hippies surrounded them, demanded their passports, and placed the three Canadians in a decrepit-looking Citroen. Exotic communications gear had been built into the car and the dashboard looked like the cockpit of a jet airplane. Metcalfe told Dorothy he suspected the French police had been tipped off by Canada. Inside a windowless room at the Securité National headquarters, an agent told them they would be deported back to Canada.

 "Non!" said Dorothy Metcalfe defiantly. "You can't."


Dorothy reached into her handbag and produced a cable from the Vatican. "We have an audience with the Pope," she insisted. The agent grabbed the cable. There followed a great deal of stomping back and forth from the adjoining room, voices on the telephone, and finally the officer in charge said, "Fine, we're deporting you to Italy."

"We have to get our luggage," Dorothy argued. The officer said he would arrange to collect their things from the hotel, but Dorothy insisted. "It's personal." More stomping and phone calls. Reluctantly, the agents allowed Dorothy and Madeleine to return to their hotel to retrieve their own luggage, but they held Ben Metcalfe in custody. As Dorothy left, her eyes met her husband's and a faint smile crossed her face.

On their way to the Left Bank hotel, Dorothy and Madeleine stopped at the Reuters office, reported their arrest and deportation, and left information about the Moruroa campaign. At the hotel, Dorothy called Greenpeace colleague Lyle Thurston in Rome and told him they would meet him on the Spanish Steps the following day. The two women returned to the Securité National office, where a young agent, assigned to escort them to Rome, ushered them into a cab. He carried a thin briefcase and appeared nervous in his new trench coat.

The agent's re-education, with cognac

In the cab, Metcalfe spoke in French with the agent, which seemed to relax him. When they arrived at Gare de Lyon, a Reuters photographer waited at the train platform. The agent threw up his hands. "Non! Non!" he protested, but it was too late. The photographer weaved and crouched, clicking his shutter. A crowd gathered to see the celebrities. The Canadians waved and smiled. The agent attempted to hustle them onto the train, but Dorothy and Madeleine took their time and chatted with the crowd. "Madame. Madame," the agent pleaded. "S'il vous plaît. Please."

Once aboard, Metcalfe opened the window and waved as the train pulled out. The UPI photographer took more pictures. A photograph of Metcalfe hanging from the window went out on the wire services with the story. Metcalfe, Dorothy, and Madeleine looked like international jewel thieves, well dressed, suave, but in custody. The flustered agent appeared to be on his first big assignment, discreetly whispering to the conductors. A youthful waiter in the dining car heard about the Greenpeace passengers and came over to shake their hands. The agent rolled his eyes. The waiter returned with a free round of cognac for the four travellers. The agent enjoyed his cognac, so Metcalfe bought another round. Then the agent felt compelled to buy a round. His confidence bolstered, he now appeared pleased to be escorting such famous villains.

The drinking continued through Dijon, the Alps, and into Torino. Ben and Dorothy kept the agent entertained with stories of Canada and World War II. The young man shared stories of his boyhood in the French countryside. Metcalfe kept ordering cognac. Madeleine pasted a Greenpeace "Mururoa Mon Amour" sticker onto the agent's briefcase. Ben Metcalfe explained to him the horror of nuclear weapons and radiation. The young man defended France's right to protect itself, but Metcalfe, the aerial gunner who had helped rout Rommel at El-Alamein, soon had the Frenchman agreeing that nuclear bombs might not be the best solution to world problems. The agent fought off sleep as they roared south toward Rome.

When they arrived at the Rome terminal, 16 hours from Paris, the story of their deportation had appeared in the international newspapers. The French agent stepped gingerly along the platform, pale and appearing queasy. Madeleine and the Metcalfes headed off to see the Pope and left him in the train station with the "Mururoa Mon Amour" sticker still on his briefcase.

The Pope has other guests

Patrick Moore and Lyle Thurston met the Metcalfes at the Spanish Steps. They walked through the grounds of Villa Borghese to the Pincio terrace, and gazed past the Piazza del Popolo to the dome of St. Peter's in the haze beyond. The Vatican: the seat of Christ's vicar, the Pope, "the infallible dispenser of spiritual graces" and "protector of the oppressed." Metcalfe called them "The Green Robes" after the Jesuit Black Robes. They drank coffee and beer in a café near the Pincio and prepared for their audience the next day at the throne of the wealthiest religious fraternity in the world. Lyle Thurston drained his beer and ordered another round. "I don't know why we're doing this," he said. "We're all atheists."

"Agnostic," said Moore.

"It doesn't matter what we believe," said Dorothy Metcalfe, "France is Catholic."

The next day, they arrived at the Vatican for what they had thought would be a private audience with the Pope. Under his coat, Thurston carried the Greenpeace flag that had flown on the Phyllis Cormack and on the Edgewater Fortune, and had been blessed by the Kwakiutl. At the fence that ringed St. Peter's Basilica, Dorothy presented their documentation to a security guard, and they discovered that their audience was not private. An usher escorted them into an auditorium with 2,000 other pilgrims, including children from Latin America, converts from Africa, and visiting priests and nuns. In the front row sat a group that had walked from Spain. The Greenpeace party sat behind them, slightly disappointed. However, the Pope welcomed "the Canadian group, Greenpeace" and used the occasion to deliver a short address on nature and peace in Catholic doctrine. "You young people are doing a good thing," he said. As the Pope blessed the multitude, Thurston and Moore held up the flag to catch the consecration.

Smoking leads to second chance

"I guess that counts," shrugged Moore. Pope Paul VI continued with a long sermon on Christian faith. Thurston grew restless and craved a cigarette. He slipped the flag back under his jacket and eased from the gallery toward a door that opened onto a courtyard. A few heads turned to see who in the world was walking out on the pontiff of the Catholic Church. Ben and Dorothy Metcalfe cringed. When Thurston reached the door, a security guard stopped him and whispered. "Where are you going?"


"You can't. No one leaves until it is over."

"I have to go outside."

"If you leave, you can't come back in."

 "Okay," whispered Thurston. "I need to go outside. Thank you. Grazie."

The security guard let Thurston into the courtyard. The doctor lit a cigarette and sat on a rock wall, listening to the birds in the garden. Twenty minutes later, the Pope, surrounded by acolytes and security guards, emerged from the basilica into the courtyard. Thurston followed the pontiff, nudged through the guards, and held up the flag. The Pope stopped. Meanwhile, Moore and the Metcalfes arrived in the courtyard and saw Thurston with the Papal entourage. Pope Paul VI waved Thurston forward, raised his hand, and blessed the Greenpeace flag. Then he turned and disappeared with his retinue.

The satisfied Green Robes found their way out onto the Piazza in front of St. Peter's. "Good," said Metcalfe, "we just gained 700 million new members."

GREENPEACE: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists and Visionaries Changed the World (Raincoast Books, 2004) is available in bookstores and online at

Click Here to Win Tickets to a Greenpeace benefit.

On Sept. 21, a concert at the Commodore in Vancouver will celebrate the Greenpeace legacy. Musicians include Chilliwack, who played at the first Greenpeace benefit in 1971, Paul Horn, Ann Mortifee, Jim Byrnes, Zubot & Dawson, Shari Ulrich, Joe Keithley, and special guests Leonard George, Mayor Larry Campbell, Bob Hunter, Dorothy Stowe, Paul Spong, Tzeporah Berman, and others.  [Tyee]

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