Close encounters with the popes over 3 decades

The Associated Press’ Rome bureau chief, Victor Simpson, has chronicled four papacies during 35 years covering the Holy See. A Vatican institution in his own right, Simpson has had a unique vantage point on history, enjoying the ear of Vatican insiders and chatting with the pope himself on foreign pilgrimages. He looks back on a storied career.

VATICAN CITY – The Middle East Airlines jetliner had barely taken off from Beirut when I was escorted down the aisle to the first-class section and seated beside Pope Benedict XVI. He had just ended a delicate two-day visit to Lebanon as civil war raged in neighboring Syria, and he looked and sounded weary.

It was my 92nd trip aboard a papal plane. My first was with the master of papal globe-trotting, John Paul II.

As I was planning to retire, the pope's journey in September was to be my last, and Vatican officials thought I should share the moment with him.

I sat beside the pope and shook his hand. "Congratulations on your retirement," he said in Italian as a Vatican photographer recorded the occasion. Speaking in a soft voice, he asked me how many years I had been covering the Vatican. When I told him more than 30, he looked surprised and said my retirement "is much-deserved." Did his thoughts drift to important plans of his own that he was concealing from the world?

There's no way to tell.

But Benedict appeared pleased with our conversation and in no rush to end it. It was his aides who motioned to me that it was time to return to my seat.

The encounter did not prepare me for his stunning announcement five months later that he planned to retire Feb. 28, the exact date I had chosen to retire myself.

CANDID CONVERSATIONS

I know a bishop who says he is jealous of the "Vaticanisti" – reporters on the Vatican beat – because we get to ask the pope questions that no bishop would dare to broach. And we're often rewarded with a remarkable response.

Sprung from Vatican confines, airborne popes seem to feel freer to speak out.

John Paul II used just such a papal flight in 1988 to issue a ringing endorsement, one of the strongest of his papacy, of fellow Poles striking against communist authorities in the Gdansk shipyard.

On a trip to Uruguay, the pope came to the back of the plane to take questions. When asked about the Solidarity strikes, he responded that the journalist should read his encyclical on work, which lays out his views on the dignity of labor. At that point, the plane was rocked by turbulence, and the pilot advised over the loudspeaker that the pope needed to return to his seat.

When calm returned, I complained that the pope had never reached my section.

A few minutes later, the pope's secretary, Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz (now a cardinal) came and brought me to the pope. He turned off my tape recorder, suggested I ask about the strikes, then turned the recorder back on.

So I asked. John Paul launched into a broadside against communist authorities and lent his full papal support to the strikes.

"Here we are touching the heart of the problem," the pope said. "It is not easy to bring democracy to a system that is by definition dictatorial and totalitarian."

No mention of the encyclical.

The statements, exclusive to AP, hit front pages of newspapers around the world the next day. They were later seen as a landmark in the pope's role in bringing down communism in Eastern Europe.

WINE DISPUTE

Two years earlier, I was asked to join John Paul for dinner in his cabin of a Qantas 747 on the final leg to Rome after a two-week trip to Bangladesh, Singapore, the Fiji Islands, New Zealand, Australia and the Seychelles.

I was embarrassed at the way I looked: lots of stubble from having shaved at dawn that morning and in a sloppy safari jacket soaked by a monsoon in the Seychelles.

But the pope put me at ease. When I apologized for "my working clothes," he gripped his white robes and said, a twinkle in his eye: "These are my working clothes."

We were joined at dinner by a papal aide and the Australian ambassador to the Holy See.

35 years covering papacy: The Associated Press’ Rome bureau chief, Victor Simpson, with Pope Benedict XVI during the flight from Beirut to Rome on Sept. 16, 2012. During  Simpson’s decades of covering the Vatican, there have been only four popes, and he will remain long enough to cover the transition after Benedict steps down.AP photo, L'Osservatore Romano

That's when I found myself in the middle of a diplomatic incident.

The Qantas steward brought wine to the table, and the ambassador grabbed a bottle of red and announced we would be having that. But John Paul protested that he didn't drink red wine and wanted white.

After that, the ambassador could get nothing right, always finding himself on the wrong side of papal opinions (judgments, after all, that are supposed to be infallible!).

John Paul sought to line me up on his side of arguments ranging from the role of young people in the church to the plight of Aborigines. One debate, in particular, became rather lively: Are Australians more like Americans or Europeans? The pope saw them as more like Americans.

What could I do but agree?

CONTROVERSY

More recently, Benedict, flying to Africa, defended church policy that handing out condoms is not the answer in the fight against AIDS. The pope, who promotes marital fidelity and abstinence, said condoms only increased the problem. The Vatican transcript did not include that line, but we all had it recorded, and the news soon made the rounds of the world.

The resulting controversy, including complaints from priests dealing with the AIDS problem in Africa, cast a shadow over Benedict's first trip to Africa.

Benedict's diplomatic tone-deafness on that trip was a big contrast to the media-savvy John Paul's introduction to Africa in 1980.

When his plane touched down in Kisangani, in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, hundreds of dancers surrounded the plane and began swaying to music. Caught up in the exuberant moment, the pope stood atop the stair ramp beside the plane in the sweltering heat and made some halting dance moves himself, flashing a broad grin as the press corps watched and the crowd cheered wildly.

Not all arrival scenes were as pleasant.

On a visit to Syria in 2001, a pilgrimage to retrace the biblical travels of St. Paul, John Paul listened impassively through a translator as President Bashar Assad urged him to take the Arabs' side in their dispute with Israel. Assad referred to what he called Jewish persecution of Jesus Christ.

The Syrian president said Jews "betrayed Jesus Christ and (in) the same way they tried to betray and kill the Prophet Muhammad."

Those views were anathema to John Paul, who made strong efforts at interfaith healing throughout his papacy.

And in his address before Assad spoke, John Paul called for a "new attitude of understanding and respect" among Muslims, Christians and Jews.

Ten years later, Benedict made a sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Christ, one of the key achievements of his pontificate.

DIPLOMACY

One thing that sets the Vatican apart from other places is that you can't just stroll around and poke your head in everywhere. As many as 18 million people pass through Vatican territory each year, but their visits are effectively limited to St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican museums. Aside from the Vatican's 492 residents and its 4,700 employees, everyone else needs a pass, even to drop by the Vatican pharmacy for medicine not sold in Italy (bring a doctor's prescription, please) or to buy back copies of the Vatican paper at the offices of L'Osservatore Romano.

After all these years, I still feel a tingle of excitement to be let in through the Bronze Door, escorted past Swiss Guards in full regalia and taken up to the pope's apartment on the third floor of the Apostolic Palace for a papal audience with a dignitary. These meetings have given a rare peek inside Vatican diplomacy.

Years ago, during the height of the Cold War, when Vatican contacts with Moscow were rare, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko came calling.

As I was led into the meeting, past guards with plumed helmets and halberds, papal aide Monsignor Jacques Martin mused aloud for anyone who was listening: "And they said Stalin asked, 'How many divisions does the pope have?'" – a dig at the huge Soviet military machine.

In 1989, reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made an official visit to the Vatican and invited John Paul to Moscow. The pope didn't take him up on it, and no pope has yet made the visit to the Russian capital.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Rome in June 2000 a month after his inauguration, he showed up to a papal audience 20 minutes late, a severe breach of protocol.

But the gaffe didn't seem to upset the businesslike atmosphere.

When reporters were ushered into the pope's study after the private talks, the Russian president was heard telling John Paul that Gorbachev's old invitation for a papal visit to Moscow still stood.

CODA

Most people who cover an institution as long as I have see a changing of the guard more often. Over more than three decades, there have been only Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II and Benedict.

So after Benedict's shock announcement, how could I resist letting him go first and hanging around another month to cover one more papal transition?

After all, I never thought I'd see a pope resign: It hasn't happened in 600 years!

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