I’ve been lucky enough to meet some fascinating people since starting in radio in 1970 and moving to television in 1974. When I’m asked who was the most interesting, my answer is always the same: Pope John Paul II.
But my first trip to see him almost ended before it began.
Photographer Paula Ross and I left Mobile with luggage and easily a hundred pounds of camera gear, lights, a tripod and video cassettes. We were on our way to Rome to document Mobile Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb’s ad limina visit to the Vatican and Pope John Paul II, who will be proclaimed a saint, along with Pope John XXIII, on April 27, 2014. Ad limina is Latin for “to the thresholds of the apostles”. It’s the name of a bishop’s periodic visits to the Pope.
Having checked everything through to Rome, Paula and I were waiting to board a PanAm flight from JFK when I heard my name on the public address system. It was bad news.
Monsignor David Sullivan, a beloved priest who had been ailing, had died, and Archbishop Lipscomb decided to delay his departure in order to celebrate his funeral. We didn’t know when the Archbishop would leave for Rome, so we had no choice but to return to Mobile.
I explained the dilemma to the woman at the gate who was sympathetic, but explained that since the flight was moments from departing, our luggage would make the trip to Rome without us. That meant were we stuck overnight in New York City without a change of clothes or toiletries. It was left up to me to decide where to stay, so the Waldorf-Astoria became a very comfortable home-away-from-home for one night. (Attention journalism students: those free- spending days are over.)
Paula and I got back to Mobile the next day, but we imagined our luggage (including all of our TV gear) going around and around on a carousel in Rome’s airport. I filed the paperwork to get it back and waited.
Monsignor Sullivan’s funeral took place and Archbishop Lipscomb rescheduled his visit. We made plans to leave again, but there was another problem; our checked baggage still hadn’t come back, and we wondered if we and our luggage would pass like two jets in the night. Luckily, everything returned to Mobile the day we were scheduled to leave. We checked it all again (paying another round of excess baggage fees) and finally arrived in Rome.
Except for our heavy, wooden tripod.
Nowadays, with current lightweight cameras, that wouldn’t be much of a problem. But in 1988, and a camera weighing close to 30 pounds, it would have been impossible to shoot hours of steady video without a good tripod. In those days, networks still had bureaus all over the world. Paula visited our network news bureau to explain our dilemma. “No problem,” she was told and then directed to a room filled with tripods. Nice tripods. Better than the tripod we brought. We used that one until we left. (Ours eventually turned up at the airport.)
Our first chance to see Pope John Paul II was at his Wednesday General Audience, held that week inside Paul VI Audience Hall, just south of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. The Hall holds 6,300 people and it was packed. Our camera position was to the Pope’s left, much closer to him than any of the laity in the audience.
We were allowed to leave that position toward the end of the Audience, and I tried to call out to the Pope as he was leaving. He looked in my direction but kept walking. In baseball terms, it was a swing and a miss.
The next morning, Paula and I received permission (everything in the Vatican required permission) to attend and videotape the Pope’s morning Mass. Archbishop Lipscomb was in our line of sight behind the Pope and some seminarians from Mobile were part of the choir, so it provided great video opportunities. The central balcony of St. Peter’s, where most recent Popes have greeted the faithful after their elections, was right behind me. It was a setting that gave me chills.
At the conclusion of Mass, we were ushered into a huge hall, where those who attended Mass had a chance for a quick handshake with the Pope. I watched as the Pope moved quickly around the perimeter of the room and whispered to the Archbishop that it would be nice to have more than a 2 second shot of the Pope hurrying past us.
He responded by clasping the Pope’s hand as he came to our group, slowly introducing the “group from Mobile”, “including our television news anchor…” At that point, the Pope looked at me and pointed, and I responded by greeting him in Slavic. I could speak and understand some of the language since my grandmothers spoke it around the house and my parents were fluent in it. I greeted the Pope by saying, “Slava Isusu Christu”, which means, “Glory to Jesus Christ”. It’s a traditional greeting at that time of year for those of us who are Eastern Rite Catholics.
The Pope hesitated for a second, perhaps wondering why this young, American TV person was speaking Slavic to him. But the Polish Pope shifted instantly from English to Slavic and responded, “I v’iki v’kov” which means “Forever and Ever”, the traditional response. He continued, also in Slavic, asking if I were Ukrainian. I told him, no, I was Slavic. By that time, he was being hurried through the line and I knew I had enough video to justify the trip. It was a home run.
The second time I saw the Pope was in his library, where he gave a message to all the bishops who had come for their ad limina visits. The communications staff at the Vatican told us that when the Pope concluded his remarks, we were to pick up our gear and leave immediately. We started to do that when I saw the Pope heading in my direction. We spoke very briefly and that’s when I received a small, plastic sleeve with the Papal Seal on it. Inside, was a set of rosary beads with a crucifix modeled after the processional cross, or crozier, that the Pope used.
You can watch the 1988, 30 minute documentary that we produced by clicking on this link. http://youtu.be/ERl9-Q4Nh9s
The final time I saw the Pope in person was in 2001, this time with my entire family. We had been vacationing in Rome and hoping for an invitation to the Pope’s morning Mass. I checked but found we were not on the list. We did take a spot in St. Peter’s Square for the Pope’s General Audience on Wednesday, saw him at a distance and were content.
After a day of sightseeing, we returned to the apartment we were renting on Via Aurelia near the Vatican when we found an envelope that had been slipped under our door. Inside was an invitation to a private audience with the Holy Father the next day. The note said if we chose to accept, we needed to call a phone number to confirm with a Sister. I was on the phone within seconds, and was told to wear a dark suit, and that my wife and daughters were to wear modest dresses, but not to wear white; that color was reserved for the Pope.
The next morning, we brought our passports to the guards at the “Bronze Doors” of the Apostolic Palace and were soon guided through a maze of long ornate hallways and magnificent staircases. The group of us, including families and dignitaries from all over the world, waited for our cue to enter the room where the Pope was seated. We were told to approach, then kneel down for a blessing. It turns out the platform on which we had to kneel wasn’t wide enough to accommodate all four of us. I balanced on one knee on the far end, with my wife and daughters directly in front of the Pope. He said something to us, handed us all rosaries as the official Vatican photographers took pictures and we were given our cue to leave. My wife, realizing there was no way to straighten up, had to grab the arm of the Pope’s throne for support, hoping that Vatican Security didn’t jump in to intervene!
I wish I could tell you what the Pope said to us, but Parkinson’s had robbed him of his ability to speak clearly. It didn’t matter. We were in the presence of a saint and the ceremony this month just confirms what we already knew.