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Travels With Pope John Paul: A Reporter Remembers


Pope John Paul II tours St. Peter's Square during the weekly general open-air audience at the Vatican, April 1, 1998

Pope John Paul II tours St. Peter's Square during the weekly general open-air audience at the Vatican, April 1, 1998

My memories of being a reporter covering Pope John Paul II have come flooding back lately, as the Roman Catholic Church prepares to declare the former religious leader "Blessed," the final step before sainthood.

So what was it like traveling with the pope around the world on his plane? Well, in some ways, it was like going on tour with the world’s biggest rock star.

I don’t mean to be irreverent - John Paul was much more than any rock star. He was a spiritual leader who, at one open air mass in Ireland, gathered and inspired 2 million people. And there is no way to easily describe what it felt like to be in the middle of 2 million people praying and singing fervently together in an open field.

But no, reporters traveling with John Paul did not fall to their knees in prayer when he came to talk to us. And there were plenty of lighter moments.

VOA's Jack Payton, then a reporter for United Press International, shakes hands with Pope John Paul II during an audience at the Vatican in 1982

VOA's Jack Payton, then a reporter for United Press International, shakes hands with Pope John Paul II during an audience at the Vatican in 1982

Once, while taking a ferry across the Congo River to Brazzaville, a group of reporters decided to serenade the pope with an inappropriate song. Hearing the lyrics, John Paul covered his ears in mock horror and just shook his head.

While he had a sense of humor, though, John Paul also had an edge. On a flight to Rome from a trip to Turkey in 1979, a group of Spanish reporters began dominating the conversation when the pope came to the back of the plane to talk. Other reporters, many of whom did not speak Spanish, became frustrated. One of them finally shouted that the Spanish reporters were being undemocratic. To our surprise, John Paul raised his index finger and said, "You are right. It is undemocratic." He turned around, went back to his cabin and closed the door.

John Paul also was a brilliant scholar, an avid skier and fluent in seven or eight languages. And he was a skilled diplomat with a clear sense of what he wanted to accomplish

VOA's Jack Payton (r), then a reporter for UPI, accompanies Pope John Paul II to Rome after a trip to Turkey in 1979

VOA's Jack Payton (r), then a reporter for UPI, accompanies Pope John Paul II to Rome after a trip to Turkey in 1979

While he sharply criticized communism - John Paul was born in communist Poland - he did so from his own perspective: that it denied the existence of God and robbed humans of their dignity. He backed that up with timely support of Poland’s Solidarity labor movement that led to the fall of communism in that country.

There were deeply spiritual moments during the dozen or so international trips that I took with John Paul.

One was in Hiroshima, Japan, when the pope stopped to pray before a monument honoring the victims of history’s first atomic bomb attack. I’ve visited Hiroshima a few times since then, but the memory of the pope and a group of Shinto priests chanting their prayers that day is one I will always carry with me.

Another was in late 1978, when John Paul visited the shrine of St. Francis in the Italian hill town of Assisi. I was the designated reporter on that trip, and when the pope went down to the grotto to pray before St. Francis’ tomb, we were alone. Watching him pray silently on his knees for more than five minutes, it seemed as if he had left this world.

Traveling with the pope remains the highlight of my years as a foreign correspondent.

Where else would I have seen Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, then president of the Vatican bank, stretched out on a church pew in full bishop’s regalia, napping while the pope and the patriarch of all Eastern orthodox churches led a three hour prayer service around him?

Or had to have negotiated a toll with a group of entrepreneurial lepers in Kinshasa, Zaire - now the Democratic Republic of Congo - to enter the post office and reach the only international phone line in town?

It’s been three decades since those experiences. But when John Paul is officially named a "Blessed" of the Roman Catholic Church and put on the final step towards sainthood, I will once again closely follow the news - but this time on television.

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