Lessons at press conferences with the pope at 36,000 feet

In his quarter-century pontificate, Blessed John Paul II broke plenty of records and recorded plenty of papal “firsts.” 

One of the most astounding for the reporters — both secular and religious — assigned to the Vatican was the Polish pontiff’s initiation of impromptu on-the-record “press conferences” aboard the papal plane during his many travels abroad. Even though one of his predecessors, Pope Paul VI, was friendly to journalists and, in fact, was the son of a journalist, his contact with them had been limited mainly to passing through with a smile and a waved blessing. 

Unfortunately, by the time I had been part of the Vatican press corps long enough to make it on the papal plane, Pope John Paul’s health had so declined that he could no longer navigate the aisle to the back of the plane where we journalists sat. 

But longtime veterans of the Vatican press corps (one was my boss at the time, Catholic News Service Rome Bureau Chief John Thavis, who has been on scores of papal trips) were offered a close-up glimpse of Pope John Paul at his most informal state: his humor, personality, passion, quick-wittedness, easy rapport and intelligence. 

Some of that is captured in a book, “Compagni di Viaggio: Interviste al volo con Giovanni Paolo II” (“Journeying Companions: Interviews in mid-flight with John Paul II”), published by the Vatican, for the moment only in Italian. 

Much of the 388-page book is questions and answers related to the geopolitical situation of the countries the pope was visiting or had just left. But journalists are a curious bunch, and the pope fielded questions from whether he believed the Shroud of Turin actually to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ (“It is a relic, but I’ll leave the physical authenticity question to the scientists”), to what he thought of the Martin Scorsese film, “The Last Temptation of Christ” (“One should respect the sentiments of believers”), to whether he would come to a birthday dinner for him prepared by the journalists (With a laugh, “Depends on what you’re serving”). 

One exchange struck me, in which the pontiff grew so vehement that he later made sure the journalists knew he did not mean to offend anyone but “spoke that way for the good of truth!” 

It was sparked by a journalist’s question, after a 1984 visit to Thailand, about whether he had posed the “political problem” of Vietnamese refugees to the government. 

The pope interrupted him: “Human, it is [a] human [problem]! It is political, of course; politicians are obliged to resolve this problem. The problem is human!” 

That struck me apt food for reflection as we head into the next election season. Our country faces many challenges: political, economic, moral. But those categories cannot make us apathetic about solving them; these are problems affecting humans. 

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