Waiting for Pope John Paul II

When you publish magazines you read a lot of copy. Every so often I read one sentence that immediately launches my thoughts in another direction. That happened when I was editing the Best New Architecture story. One of the honored new buildings, I read, was at the site on the Xavier University campus where Pope John Paul II spoke in 1987.

Whoosh! Suddenly I was back to that day. I had signed up to be in the press pool and was in the bus that was to precede the Pope. As the bus made the turn to enter the campus, those in the long line of well-dressed people who were waiting to see the Pope looked at us excitedly, as though we were important. For the moment, in a vicarious way, we were linked to Rome. Traveling with me that day was a totally cynical French photographer whose mission was to be on hand just in case there was another assassination attempt on John Paul. Much of his time was spent trying to bum a cigarette, or, when he had one, a light. He complained about how few Americans were smoking anymore.

We were ushered into a university hall that had been converted into a press room. Though there were only about a dozen of us in the press pool there must have been 50 telephones waiting for us to call in the big story. With time to kill before the Pope arrived and phones to use, I called my mom. “Have you seen the Pope yet?” she asked excitedly. “Not yet.”

That moment came about a half-hour later when John Paul, having arrived by limousine, walked among the crowd and alongside the press stands. Hands were eagerly extended for the Pope to touch, including, to my surprise, that of the French photographer, who had seen it all before but was nevertheless carried by the moment. Though the Pope missed me, he did reach the photographer who seemed pleased, even without possessing a cigarette.

After the event we were bused to the Rivergate, which served as the hub of media activity. According to the pool arrangement I was supposed to be available to be de-briefed by any reporter who wanted more details about the event, but none came.  Xavier had gone by quietly. There was no big news story …

Except for one and it was huge but nobody noticed. It was at Xavier that the Pope in his remarks endorsed multiculturalism. He urged that customs and music of different nations be incorporated into the Mass. That day at Xavier the church became more universal. In a spiritual sense it was a development of groundbreaking importance, but it just didn’t pass for news. Now the Sister Katherine Drexel Chapel stands where the Pope made his historic pronouncements.

Easter is about hope, and this is the month to celebrate it. Blessed are those who can make even a cynical Frenchman smile.

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