Beatification of John Paul II: Pope Would Give Candid Interviews -- at 35,000 Feet


That "too much" makes me think of the first time we rode with him into Warsaw's Victory Square in June 1979 at the opening of his first papal visit back home. The Polish crowds, accustomed to communism, stood awed but hushed – so different from the exuberant throngs who had cheered him through Mexico City five months earlier.

But after his speech, telling his fellow Poles, in effect, it was their God-given right to be free and of the holiness of human rights, he exited that square amid great and joyous jubilation. Ten years later, the Berlin Wall was taken apart, peacefully.

One time on the plane, a young correspondent, astonished that John Paul had learned two new languages since becoming pope, asked him, "What is your secret for learning languages?!"

"You know," said the pope after thinking about it for a moment, "When I set out to learn a new language, I think to myself, 'I'm not going to get all of it -- but I'll get some of it!'"

We all smiled at the wisdom of that.

There were, of course, always the serious necessary questions: How can you fly in to visit this dictator and thus lend him legitimacy? Answer: How can I not fly in to proclaim the gospel of peace and human rights ... and non-violence?

There also were comic moments, like the one at the foot of the stairs on our arrival at a jungle airstrip in deepest Africa near the town of Kisangani with insistently rhythmic music, impossible not to dance to, from a women-and-girls choir and rag-tag brass band that had journalists, band leader and pope all gleefully dancing together as astonished local dignitaries took it all in.

After about 10 years as pope, his forays to the back end of the plane were curtailed as his Parkinson's advanced, but there was one last time we got to ask him directly any question we wanted -- even if no longer 1-on-1.

It was in 1998 on the first ever papal trip to Cuba where the communist Fidel Castro still ruled, seven years after the Soviet Union disbanded. We all gathered in a wide arc around John Paul where he stood up front just inside our press cabin, an aide holding a microphone that amplified his answers over the plane's speaker system.

"Holy Father," I asked from amid my colleagues, "what do you plan to tell the Cuban people about human rights?"

And once again we saw him pause and reach deep for a measured authentic answer -- mellower now, older, slowed by disease and by enormous success: "Ah. You know. You know! You know very well what I am thinking about human rights, and what I can say about human rights -- the same as I spoke before in so many countries, beginning with Mexico and Poland in '79. That is clear. Human rights are fundamental rights at the foundation of all civilization, of all regular social community. I brought this conviction and this engagement for human rights, I brought that all with me from Poland in the confrontation with the Soviet Union and the Soviet system, with communist totalitarian system. And so it is a long history."

Thinking back on all that history now, it reminds me of something my own father told me years ago, before John Paul was elected -- that "the strong man loves the race" -- and I remember how in the course of our work we got to ride along and experience how John Paul, knowing he wouldn't get all of it, got far more than anyone expected when he took the risk, "did something of what is too much," and helped the world change for the better -- peacefully.

Click here for video of Pope John Paul II's thoughts on human rights.

Bill Blakemore became ABC's Rome Bureau Chief in April 1978, six months before Krakow's Archbishop Karol Wojtyla became the first non-Italian pope in 455 years, and continued reporting on John Paul through his funeral in 2005.

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