April 30, 2011 -- John Paul II is the only pope ever to have engaged in the modern give-and-take press conference, but there was only one place he would do it -- at 35,000 feet, flying between countries.
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!"
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.
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.