April 29th, 2011
04:33 PM ET
By Jim Bittermann, CNN
Rome, Italy (CNN) - I guess I could say I first met Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978.
I wasn’t exactly alone with the pontiff. There were hundreds of thousands of others who also met him for the first time that night in St. Peter’s Square when he stepped out on the balcony as the newly elected pope.
And the story you may have heard is absolutely true: When they announced that Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was the new pope, those of us in the press corps - especially those of us broadcasting live - went as white as his robe. Few people ever put the cardinal on their papal short lists and fewer still could immediately understand the name announced over the Vatican’s crackly speaker system.
But we got to know John Paul - who will be beatified Sunday in Rome, the last step before sainthood - very quickly.
For me, it was a fast and forced learning curve. Not much more than a month earlier, Paul VI had died and I'd arrived in Rome as a newly minted NBC correspondent.
Having been raised a Protestant, I knew about as little as a person could about the Roman Catholic Church and its arcane rituals, “the smells and bells” as one of my Catholic friends calls them. Survival instincts kicked in, and I learned fast, because that was the year of the three popes: Paul VI, John Paul I (who died in September 1978) and now John Paul II.
I was on the air constantly and had to get it right.
The Italians did not know what to expect of the new pope. There were rumors that odors of cooked cabbages and sausage were now wafting up from the Vatican kitchens. Among some churchmen, there were grumblings about the new "Polish mafia," the Poles who’d moved in take over Vatican offices that Italians had dominated for more than four centuries.
John Paul was the youngest pope in more than a century and we surmised - and his fellow cardinals later confirmed - that his youth and upbringing behind the Iron Curtain may have engendered his lust for travel.
He hit the road constantly, taking the papal press corps along for the rides. In the early days, he would leave the front of the plane and come back to find us, as we flew what we liked to call pilgrim class (as the pope sat in "pope class" and bishops in "bishop class.")
We all tried to get in a question or hear a quote. Airplanes are not made for news conferences, and if you happened be seated near where John Paul would stop to chat, you could well end up with someone’s foot on your armrest or a cameraman balancing his camera on your head.
The pope seemed to genuinely enjoy the interplay. He got to know some of us well enough that he remembered the names of wives and children from one trip to the next.
But that arrangement didn’t last long.
The assassination attempt on John Paul in 1981, while it had nothing to do with the papal entourage, seemed to take away the casualness about the travel.
Still, one of the most memorable direct encounters between the press and John Paul II was aboard the papal plane 20 years later, as we were heading home from Armenia in 2001.
The pope was pretty sick with Parkinson’s disease by that point, and we all had written stories about how poorly he was looking. What happened on the plane may have been a response to that: After three hours of toasting each other for another successful trip, the press corps suddenly got word from the Vatican press people to pull up our ties and put on our jackets. We were going up front.
None of us had any idea what that meant exactly, but we followed orders and lined up in the corridor. One by one, we were taken up to a seat next to John Paul II for a photo.
At that point, many of us were looking somewhat the worse for wear. The contrast with the pope, dressed in his pristine white cassock, might have caused one to wonder if we were in any position to judge what “looking poorly” really meant.
For me, the most enduring and insightful memories of traveling with John Paul II were the two times I traveled with him to his hometown of Wadowice, Poland.
Both times, the crowds and the pope were highly emotional. Wadowice is in a hard-working part of southern Poland. The pope’s former friends and neighbors could not have been more proud of the local son who made good.
In a way, it reminded me of my own hometown in Illinois, about the same size as Wadowice and marked by heavy industry and heavy pollution.
But what was so different about Wadowice is that for much of John Paul II’s adult life this town and his homeland were ruled by Nazis and then by Communists. Freedom was an unknown concept.
There was philosophical penury and physical hardships, too. John Paul lost his mother when he was nine years old and his father when he was 20. Despite all the challenges and disadvantages, Karol Woytila managed to learn and hone the talents and skills that made him one of the most memorable popes in history.
His language abilities (he spoke eight fluently), his stage presence, his intellectual and spiritual strengths were developed and refined against all odds.
They say that in the end, the true measure of a person is how far they have come. When you visit John Paul II’s hometown, you realize the huge distance he traveled.
If you have spiritual side, you might conclude he couldn’t have made the journey alone.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.