U.S. Ambassadors to Vatican Remember Pope

A U.S. diplomat remembers Pope John Paul II (search), stricken with the tremors of Parkinson's (search) disease, greeting a young priest by the arm and putting the man quickly at ease at what could have been an awkward moment.

"What's the matter, son?" the pope asked. "You're too young to be trembling like that."

So recalled Lindy Boggs, ambassador to the Vatican from 1997-2001 and one of several former U.S. envoys to the Holy See who thought back Sunday on the personal moments they enjoyed with the pontiff.

They remembered, too, his way with children and his gentle stoicism in the face of his infirmities.

Like Boggs, Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson, ambassador from 2001 until early this year, was struck by the pope's sense of humor. Nicholson told of a U.S. cardinal who asked the pope, during these recent months of declining health, how he was feeling.

"I don't know yet," the pope said, according to Nicholson. "I haven't had a chance to read the American press. Tell them I don't run the church with my feet."

John Paul died Saturday of septic shock and an irreversible cardio-circulatory collapse. He was 84.

The Polish pontiff (search) had a way of making people feel comfortable with him and connecting to him, Nicholson said.

"He had riveting eyes. In spite of all the millions of people he met, he looked them in the eye. And children brought out a special glint in his eye. In the later stages he had a difficult time smiling, but kids could actually bring that out and somehow he could manage a smile."

Nicholson's first meeting with the pope was just two days after the Sept. 11, 2001 (search), attacks on the United States.

He said the pope greeted him at Castel Gandolfo, his summer palace. "He said, 'I'm sorry, what happened. That was an attack not just on the United States. That was an attack on humanity."'

"The pope said President Bush and the world had to do something about these people who kill in the name of God," said Nicholson. "So he was very supportive of us in our efforts against terrorism in Afghanistan."

Still, the pope was a man of peace.

When Bush called on the pope in June, he presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom (search). The pontiff read a lengthy statement expressing "grave concern" about events in Iraq. He ended his remarks with, "God bless the United States."

Boggs highlighted the pope's "remarkable rapport" with young people. She recalled the time John Paul was about to leave an Air Force base in Alaska and some children asked him if they could give him a ride on their dog sled to his plane.

"He said, 'No,"' she recalled. "Their faces fell. But he said he'd drive them — on the dog sled!"

Raymond Flynn, ambassador from 1993-1997, told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday that as he traveled back to Europe with the pope from Denver after World Youth Day in August 1993, the pontiff said he had "looked into the eyes of the future of America."

"The future of America is very bright, it's very hopeful, it's very promising," Flynn recalled the pope saying. "It's in the teachings of Christ. It's in your young people. America's best days are yet to come."

"It took this older man who had to remind me — this so-called savvy, street-wise, seasoned politician — what was really important and what the future of young people really is all about," said Flynn, a former mayor of Boston.

"You know, I think that's going to be (his) greatest legacy. You can't measure it in today, but you'll see it in the years to come, in your children, in your grandchildren."

Thomas P. Melady, U.S. ambassador to the Vatican (search) under former President Bush from 1989-1993, said he was sent to Rome with "a secret instruction" to press the pope to open diplomatic relations with Israel.

Melady said he waited a few months before approaching the pope directly, but when he did, the pope seemed receptive and committed to addressing the troubled history between Roman Catholics and Jews.

The Vatican did agree to open relations with Israel in 1993. Full diplomatic ties began the following year.

Melady remembered the pope as a vigorous and warm man who would call him aside in meetings to pass along messages to the White House. Their dealings were always in English, one of several languages the pontiff spoke.

Nicholson said that at the end of every meeting he had with the pope, the pontiff would say, "God bless America."