One of the century's great statesmen, pope brought human touch to papacy
By ROBIN WRIGHT
This is the pope I knew. In the slums of Rio, I watched John Paul II quietly slip off his gold papal ring, a gift from Pope Paul VI when he was elevated to cardinal in 1967, and give it to a poor Brazilian parish to help its flock.
I watched him in Hiroshima lead prayers at ground zero, and then in Nagasaki minister to long-forgotten victims wasting away from radiation more than 30 years after two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan ended World War II. As he told us on the plane, he anguished over the fact that two Catholics had been on the planes that first unleashed the world's deadliest weapon.
And in the Philippines, I watched him embrace a little boy who had dodged through a massive crowd, defying tight security, to touch his pope.
For many of us who traveled in the small Vatican press corps, John Paul will be best remembered as the human pope. With a steely determination, the obscure Pole elected on the eighth ballot to lead the world's smallest state ended up as a champion of the human condition, inspiring political upheavals against injustice in the wake of his visits on at least four continents.
In the last decade of his legendary life, the increasingly painful images of John Paul II portrayed an ailing man crippled by Parkinson's disease, stiffened by wounds suffered from an assassin's bullets, hunched over and standing only with help from aides, in the end communicating in a raspy grumble. But I will always think of him as a man of robust vigor, physically and intellectually -- and one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century.
Meeting with Marcos
In the Philippines, I was the pool reporter for his meeting with dictator Ferdinand Marcos, which was so tightly orchestrated that even the papal press corps had to wear the full-length gowns with butterfly sleeves favored by Imelda Marcos or the pleated men's shirts worn by the president -- both in white. Matching thrones had been specially carved for the president and pontiff to sit side by side.
But John Paul rarely tolerated pretense, and his private meeting before the public reception ended with Marcos storming out of a room in his own palace. I still remember the fury on his face. The pope emerged looking almost serene after privately delivering a blunt message that no government could justify subverting human rights in the name of its own security or survival.
"The church will not hesitate to take up the cause of the poor and to become the voice of those who are not listened to when they speak up, not to demand charity, but to ask for justice," he later told Filipino farm workers in an implicit jab at the Marcos regime.
During his tour of Manila's slums, John Paul made it clear he knew the government had spruced them up with a coat of paint and a garbage cleanup only for his visit; he wasn't going to let Marcos get away with the manipulated backdrop for his sermons.
John Paul was also an accessible pontiff. Among the press, we often referred to him simply as Papa, the Italian for pope, or Papa Wojtyla. It somehow seemed apt in English, too. He treated us as his kids.
On most trips he came back on the plane, moving from seat to seat, answering questions, sharing a story or engaging in banter -- usually in whatever language the journalist spoke. He was accessible on any subject, from sex and birth control to modern warfare and economics, and he could be impishly blunt. He once even told us a Polish joke.
Back then I was often the only woman on the plane, and I'm not Catholic, but he was good about spending time with me. One of my favorite mementos is a picture from John Paul's trip back from Japan on Emperor Hirohito's plane. The pope had one arm on my shoulder and the other pointing at me, as if to say, "For once, behave yourself." In fact, he was making a point about nuclear weapons.
On another flight, this time on a tour of Germany, where he had traveled to the border with communist Poland to send a message about freedom, I asked him if he thought that largely symbolic gestures accomplished anything. With a twinkle, he replied, "Can't you ask me a harder question?" He meant it.
The common theme in John Paul's papacy was his refusal to accept limits. He wrote more and traveled more than any other pontiff in history. He was surely seen in person by more people than any other leader in history. He also reached out well beyond his own Christian flock. John Paul was the first pope in 2,000 years of Christianity to enter a Jewish house of worship -- at a synagogue in Rome in 1986, he held a joint ceremony with the chief rabbi and spoke in Hebrew. He later prayed with Muslims at a mosque in Damascus, another first.
On the last trip I took with him, his staff and the press were already on board the Alitalia flight while he finished Mass in his private chapel -- in his 14th language, Lithuanian. He'd learned the basics for his trip. As sometimes happened, he was running a bit late.
"It's not that he's a poor planner -- he's very organized," a Vatican official told me on the eve of that trip, to explain why the Holy See had taken to using a helicopter to transport the pontiff to Rome's airport before his trips abroad. "It's just that he uses every minute to the maximum. And sometimes one minute spills over into the next."
In the end, time was the only limit to John Paul's extraordinary papacy.