He would suddenly appear at the head of an aisle and we, the 50 or 60 journalists from around the world at the back end of his plane, would scramble to rearrange ourselves in language groups. He spoke seven or eight languages well and we each wanted our microphones to catch every answer in the language of our audience and readers back home.
We could ask him anything, and did -- about sex and drugs and rock-and-roll, about what it's like to be pope, and about liberation theology, existential philosophy, Spanish cooking -- anything.
He seemed to enjoy these exchanges at close quarters, all standing jammed in, jostling together face to face in the aisles, the predictable questions and the impertinent -- like this, one of my favorites:
I was standing close in with him and a British reporter on my left -- who asked him, sounding just a little imperious, "Holy Father! How, in a world in which hundreds of thousands of children are born into certain squalor and suffering every month, can you possibly be against artificial birth control?!"
The Holy Father, closely watching his questioner's face, answered, "The answer is, as it always was, responsible parenthood."
Not to be outdone, my colleague shot back, "Yes, but what is responsible parenthood?!"
Not to be outdone, John Paul, leaning in a bit, paused for the briefest moment and, looking deep into my colleague's eyes, said in a low and quiet voice: "You know."
Silence. Another beat. And another ... and since there was still no response, he smiled and moved on past us up the aisle to the next language group.
He was making us get to know him as a person -- and that he could handle himself in a scuffle.
Another time on the plane, after 2 or 3 years in many countries following immediately behind him in our press vehicles in motorcades through cheering millions all focused on him, I wondered whether all that adoration and attention made him feel vain, went to his head, so I asked how it affected him:
"I am convinced," he said, "that they ... don't cheering MY-self, but the successor of Peter."
Traditionalist prelates in the Vatican soon complained to me off-the-record that this energetic traveling -- some five trips a year -- wasn't quite the right way to be pope and smacked a bit too much of triumphalism.
So on our next flight, I asked him about that.
"Holy Father," I said, standing at an aisle seat, "some people say that you are traveling too much."
"Yes! I am convinced!" he said, not missing a beat.
"You are?" I said, a little surprised, and then asked if he expected to keep it up.
"We shall see," he pondered, then said again, firmly: "I am convinced that I am traveling too much."
He turned to move on, then turned back and, holding up an index finger for emphasis, added with a smile, "But sometimes it is necessary to do something of what is too much!"