ROME – When the word came Saturday night that Pope John Paul II had died, I was standing on a platform in front of St. Peter’s Square helping FOX News Channel report the news. It was, also, as if a big chunk of my life had just come full circle.
Because in important ways, the life and times of the Holy Father have been intertwined with my own. On a personal, professional … and spiritual level.
The cool April night turned immediately electric with the breaking news of the pontiff's death. It felt almost identical to another cool night at the Vatican 26 1/2 years ago.
It was October 1978, and the Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was presented to the world from the balcony of St. Peter’s as the newly-elected Pope John Paul II.
I was in the crowd that night. I was a (very) green-behind-the-ears journalist, on basically my first foreign assignment, producing for WABC-TV’s longtime New York anchorman Bill Beutel.
I, like most of the assembled thousands, was not very familiar with the new Pope. I remember the collective "Who?" spoken by the crowd when the name was read out. I raced back with the tape of the event, to cut a story at our hotel, and ran it over to Italian TV to send it back by satellite (that’s how we did I it in those days).
I had a sense that something very important had just happened in the world.
And that night also confirmed to me my sense that reporting on that world was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
In the years to come, my instinctual feeling that Pope John Paul II was a man of unique moral power proved out. I was with the crowds of people during his first tour of Ireland when he demanded that the terrorists tearing apart Northern Ireland lay down their arms and bombs.
And I was with a crowd of kids in Madison Square Garden during a papal trip to New York. In an era marked by disco and debauchery, it turned into an impromptu lovefest with the pope. Every time he started to speak, the young people would interrupt him with their chants of affection.
After a while, he just gave in. When they finally let him speak, he responded with a wry grin and a whimsical "ooo-ooo" sound. For many minutes. He was having fun.
The next time I covered the pope was in 1985 at one of the massive Consistories of Cardinals he would hold.
Our focus was on Cardinal John O'Connor, who would succeed Cardinal Terence Cooke as the head of the New York archdiocese.
But Pope John Paul II was always a presence in our coverage. By that time he had been through the shocking near-death experience of an assassination attempt in St. Peter’s Square. He had come back and recovered from that and showed he was nothing short of a man of steel on the throne of St. Peter.
Oh, and there was one other "presence" on this trip … an Italian journalist named Patrizia Spinelli. She had her own experiences working on stories about the pope, including translating for an ABC anchor during one papal visit.
In between official Vatican functions I proposed to her. A year later we were married … in a Polish-American church in Riverhead, N.Y., by a monsignor with his own strong ties and admiration … for Karol Wojtyla! Twenty years on, my ties with Patrizia are still very much bound.
In the years to come, I would report on a pope who would increasingly make his mark on the world and the church, sometimes in ways that people might not agree with. But always in a way that made clear to everyone he knew where he and the Catholic Church were coming from and going to.
At the same time, though, this "Superman" of the church was also being wracked by personal illness. The hard facts of what we now know was the effects of Parkinson’s disease were taking their toll on Pope John Paul II.
The last time I saw him up close was in the last stages of his papacy. He went to Turin, Italy, to pray to and bless the famous Shroud of Jesus there.
By some quirk of fate, his "Popemobile" stopped in front of the church containing the Shroud …right in front of where I was standing. The Pope sat, behind bulletproof glass, about five feet from me.
I had a chance to study him. He was obviously taking a great deal of medication. His skin looked puffy, his eyes glazed, his body frozen. And he seemed riveted with pain. There, I thought, was a great man with a great mind with a huge list of accomplishments and still much to do … trapped by a disease that would try to hold him down.
And I thought of my mother, who at that time was in the final throes of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. That debilitating illness slowly robs a person of the ability to speak … then eat … then function, much like what happened to the pope.
Before it got so bad, we would communicate as well as we could in the kitchen of my family home on Long Island. First my mother would try to talk. Then she just made motions. And, just like the pope, she chose to pass away in her our home. It wasn’t the Apostolic Palace … but there was a priest nearby at the end.
Over the kitchen table in our home there is a tattered calendar featuring Pope John Paul II. He was well-loved by my mother and father, not least because this "Polish" pontiff was actually part Lithuanian. The families of my mother and father both come from the Baltic country.
So now you understand why I carry around a little extra "baggage" when I cover the life and death of Pope John Paul II. I don’t think it’s gotten in the way of my reporting. I’ve taken a few ideological shots at him from time to time. But I’ve also seen him as a man of incredible brilliance, strength and warmth, the likes of whom we won’t see in a very long while.
And who just happened to be in the background of a good part of my adult life.
Rest well, Holy Father.