My memories of two memorable Popes, both of whom are now Saints….


Do you remember where you were 40 years ago today?

I remember it as well as the second I am typing this column!

In September 1978, after two years of working at the Rome bureau of the New York Times – when it really was a paper of note, in my judgment – I was working at their bureau in Cairo. I had been called there by bureau chief Christopher Wren to work as an assistant on what we thought would be the peace talks between Israel and Egypt. Those talks were moved to Camp David and, while that deprived Chris and me from what would have been a heady professional experience of covering a history-making event, I had more time and a better chance to explore a country for which I had had a passion since childhood.

Forty years ago we did not have satellite TV, the phones in Egypt did not work, there were no fax machines or computers or Internet or cell phones. The only TV we had (I lived with Chris and his wife Jacqueline and their two children at the time) was a small black-and-white set with local shows in Arabic. Our access to news was short wave radio. As I re-read these lines, I realize how much this seems like the days of Fred Flintstone!

In the evenings, for about five minutes during one Arabic language news program, there was what today we call “crawl” or news ticker – news printed in English that ran along the bottom of our screen.

One morning over breakfast, we heard the news that the Pope had died. Thinking the announcer meant that Paul VI had died (he had died in Castelgandolfo on August 6), we opined that he had made a huge mistake and was really out of the news loop.

In seconds we found out that the new Pope had died – John Paul!! Naturally, we were stunned. For weeks we stayed tuned to the BBC, following the funeral, the nine days of Masses and the new conclave. We also watched the English language news crawl every night on TV. It was a news story for the Arabic world but got nowhere near the coverage other nations around gave the death of a Pope and election of his successor.

One night – as we listened to BBC news at the dinner table – we heard the words “Habemus papam” – We have a Pope! The way that John Paul’s Polish name – Wojtyla – was pronounced, it seemed like an Italian name and the entire Wren family turned to me, asking which Italian cardinal the College of Cardinals had elected as Pope. My mind raced and I could not come up with a name – and then we heard it was the cardinal from Krakow, Poland. Stunning news once again! (CNA photo)

Six days later – October 22, 1978 – there was the solemn Mass to inaugurate that pontificate. I may not have been in Rome for his election and for that Mass 40 years ago but I followed John Paul II from the moment that I returned to Rome.

When certain anniversaries come around, I think of those days – the very heady and exciting and wondrous days of Pope John Paul II.

By the way, in an earlier paragraph I spoke of the death of the new Pope, John Paul. He was not called John Paul I during his pontificate, of course. He only became John Paul I when his successor chose John Paul II as his papal name.

One of my favorite stories of the “Smiling Pope,” Albino Luciani, from all those decades ago was the report that one day Pope John Paul was asked to sign a document and he wrote his name in Latin and placed the Roman numeral I beside it. A secretary or some official said, “But Holiness, there is no I after your name.” And John Paul is said to have replied, “There will be a John Paul II.”


Sunday, in a sun-splashed St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis canonized seven Blesseds, including Pope Paul VI and murdered Salvadoran bishop Oscar Romero, a spiritual hero to millions. Francis said in his homily that, “Saints risk everything to put the Gospel into practice’.”

Today I’d like to share some stories about the first Pope I ever spoke to – the new Saint. Pope Paul VI.

In September 1974, having just moved to Italy to work for St. Mary’s of Notre Dame Rome program, a new friend asked if I would like to attend a papal audience. Well, that’s a no-brainer! I was excited beyond telling, even more so as I had to leave Rome as the audience took place in a beautiful modern audience hall in the town of Castelgandolfo, a hall later given to the Focolare movement by Saint John Paul.

Unbelievably, I was brought to the very front row on the right side of the audience hall and was literally only yards away from Paul VI as he addressed us. I was totally enthralled! The Pope’s talk was in Italian and I was struck by the fact he used the pontifical “We” instead of “I” and that he knew several languages as he addressed groups.

The chair on which Pope Paul was seated was in essence a movable throne. When the Holy Father had concluded the audience, the sediari, the chair bearers, came to insert two long, red velvet-covered poles under the chair on each side and began to lift him to carry him back out through the hall. We all started to gasp! As the chair was being lifted, the Pope seemed to have spotted someone and started to stand up. The chair bearers immediately set the throne down, the Pope got up and came over to our row! Seems the daughter of a diplomat was seated next to me and the Pope knew her family. Paul VI briefly spoke to her.

I was speechless at being so close to a Pope and then, of all things, he spoke to me! He asked where I was from and when I said the United States, he spoke in English and said a few words, none of which I remember as I write but I’m sure they are in some diary! An amazing moment and memorable day!

Some time later, I was working in the Rome office of the New York Times and on weekends I was the personal secretary to American Cardinal John Wright, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy. His secretary for Vatican affairs was Fr. Donald Wuerl.

It was Holy Week. On Good Friday my boss called me in and said he had an unusual favor to ask and I could say no if I wanted to. He heard that Pope Paul VI had perhaps suffered a mini stroke during Mass the previous Holy Thursday but could get no confirmation in order to write a news story. Would I be willing to ask Cardinal Wright if he knew anything?

I said I’d go and called his secretary who immediately set aside 10 minutes for me with the cardinal. I asked Cardinal Wright what he knew, and said I would respect whatever he would tell me, including that I had no right to ask him. He said he could confirm the fact but added with a smile: “You did not hear this from me.”

That is exactly what I told my boss when I returned to the office and, God bless him, he never wrote the story. In those days the Times wanted three separate sources to independently verify such a story.

Times – in a literal and figurative sense – have really changed!

Paul VI went on to reign for over a year and died in Castelgandolfo August 6, 1978.