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VOA Reporter Recalls Papal Tours

  • Michael Drudge

Pope John Paul II was the most widely traveled pope in history. According to the Vatican, he was seen in person by more than a billion people during 104 overseas visits. He logged enough kilometers to circumnavigate the world 29 times. VOA's Michael Drudge covered several papal tours and he has these recollections from his reporter's notebook.

Just three months after assuming the papacy, John Paul made his first overseas trip, to Mexico, in January of 1979.

I recall the joy of the people when John Paul kissed the ground at Mexico City's airport, as soon as he deplaned - a gesture that became a trademark of his papacy.

Pope John Paul II, wearing miter, is shown underneath a large flower decoration featuring, during his pastoral visit in Monterey, Mexico, Jan. 1979
More than a million Mexicans lined the streets as the papal motorcade traveled from the airport to the zocalo, the main plaza in Mexico City, where the pope held Mass in front of the 16th century Metropolitan Cathedral.

It was love-at-first-sight between the Polish-born pontiff and the faithful of Mexico, the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. The pope delighted the crowds with his fluency in their language, and his appreciation of their culture.

At the end of his stay, the papal jet made a long and slow circle in the skies around the sprawling Mexican capital, as many thousands of people flashed mirrors from the rooftops to bid farewell to the new pope who had captured their hearts.

Four years later, I was a reporter based in Central America when John Paul made a visit to that blood-stained region, where leftist revolutionaries and rightwing death squads were struggling for power.

It was in March of 1983 when the pope came to leftist-ruled Nicaragua for what turned out to be one of the most controversial visits of his papacy.

As he went down the receiving line at Managua's airport, the pope came upon Ernesto Cardenal - a priest who was serving as culture minister in the Sandinista government, in direct violation of Vatican rules. As Father Cardenal knelt to kiss the papal ring, John Paul wagged his finger at him and told him get himself right with the church. Father Cardenal ignored the admonition.

The pope further angered the Sandinistas by refusing to openly condemn a U.S.-backed rebel movement called the "contras." At his Mass in Managua, Sandinista supporters took over the sound system and interrupted the pope's homily with revolutionary chants, leaving John Paul calling out in vain: "Silencio, silencio." It was the most unusual Mass of his 26-year papacy.

In January of 1995, I was based in India and covered the pope's visit to neighboring Sri Lanka, which has a sizeable Catholic minority on an island where Buddhists and Muslims predominate.

By this time, the pope was visibly weaker that he had been a decade earlier. His stop in Sri Lanka was the last leg of a grueling Asian tour.

I traveled in a bus with other reporters a few vehicles behind the pope-mobile for the 30-kilometer drive into town. It was a sweltering hot day, but we journalists did not realize that the air conditioning in the pope's vehicle was broken. He was sweltering inside the glass-encased truck. Still, he carried on as best he could, waving to and blessing the many thousands of people lining the road.

Eventually though, the heat became too great and John Paul had the pope-mobile stop outside a church on the outskirts of Colombo. He disembarked, and with the help of an aide, he went inside. I ran up to the door of the church, but the officials would not let me enter. I saw John Paul retreat to the sacristy, where he remained for about half an hour to drink some water and refresh himself. When he came back out to resume the trip, an air conditioned limousine was waiting for him, a bodyguard holding the door open. I stood few meters away.

The pope paused and gave a long look at the cool, inviting car. Then he shook his head and shuffled his way back aboard the pope-mobile. He was determined not to let his frailty deprive the faithful from seeing him.

The last time I saw John Paul was in Cuba, in January of 1998. Millions of Cubans welcomed the pope at open-air masses around the Communist-ruled island, His presence emboldened local bishops to appeal for more religious tolerance. As a result, Cuban Catholics can now more freely practice their faith and the Fidel Castro government has given official recognition to the Christmas holiday.

Today I'm reporting from the pope's native Poland, where the people are mourning the loss of a national hero whose lasting legacy will be his role in helping topple the former Communist dictatorships of the Soviet bloc.

Churches have been filled to overflowing as the Polish faithful say goodbye to their beloved native son. I've been speaking to people in Warsaw about what the pope meant to them.

"The pope was a great person for me," says a women. "He was Polish and it was very important for us. For me, personally, it (he) was like another father. It's a huge tragedy for me."

"He was a great figure of all our world, not only [for] Polish people, but it is special that he is Polish. We know it."

Now, the Polish people say goodbye to a world religious leader - a man of their own.

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