As always, Papa boarded last. While his entourage headed to Rome's international airport, Pope John Paul II was still at the Vatican, finishing mass in his private chapel. This time, as he prepared to set foot in the remnants of the Soviet Union, mass was in Lithuanian—his fourteenth language.
After conferring with aides about last-minute trip details and work to be done in his absence, he boarded a helicopter for the ride across town to join the cardinals and bishops, Vatican staff, and press traveling with him to the three Baltic states. Most of us were already on board the plane by the time he arrived. It is protocol for the Pontiff to board last. But since the early 1980s the Holy See has relied heavily on a helipad in the farthest corner behind Saint Peter's Basilica and its manicured gardens, as a concession to the Pope's incessant globe-trotting, for security reasons after two assassination attempts, and because the Holy Father tends to run late.
"It's not that he's a poor planner—he's very organized," a Vatican official had told me a few days before the trip. "It's just that he uses every minute to the maximum. And sometimes one minute spills over into the next."
After he arrived, Papa Wojtyla—as he is known around Rome, papa being the Italian word for Pope—came back to wish the accompanying press a good trip. Now seventy-four, the Pope has visibly aged since I first traveled with him, early in his papacy. The firm skin around his chiseled Slavic face has softened, and the gray hair has turned white. His stoop is more pronounced, and the talk around the Vatican is that life would probably be easier for him—and his staff—if he tried glasses and a hearing aid. Members of his inner circle used to boast that the Pope got up at 5:00 A.M., said first mass at seven, hosted guests at all three meals, read the last briefing paper from his Secretary of State late into the night and on weekends walked, skied, hiked, or swam. Now the same hours and habits worry them. John Paul's one concession to age has been to add a papal afternoon nap to the Holy See schedule, even during his trips. Health setbacks—two bullets in the 1981 assassination attempt, pre-cancerous colon surgery in 1992, a broken arm and dislocated shoulder in 1993, and a broken leg and hip surgery this year—haven't helped. He has been to Rome's Gemelli Hospital so often that when he arrived by ambulance after his latest injury, from a fall in the bathroom, he reportedly joked to the medical staff, "You have to admire my loyalty." His aides vaguely, and inadequately, refer to the Pontiff's medical history when pressed about his left arm, which now often visibly shakes. Sometimes the Pope holds the arm with his other hand, although that rarely suffices anymore.
Yet John Paul, who has surely been seen by more people than anyone else in history, is still a magnet. Like many otherwise irreverent journalists assigned to the Holy See, I found that my initial lack of interest eventually gave way to a certain fascination. The real interest wasn't in the endearing persona—giving his papal ring to the Brazilian poor, or wearing white sneakers with yellow laces (the Holy See's colors), a gift from the kids at Denver's World Youth Day. And it wasn't in the controversial moral writings from history's most prolific Pontiff—the latest, last October, banning not only abortion, contraception, divorce, and homosexuality but also the mere questioning of those bans. What fascinated me was instead the way that this obscure Pole, elected on the eighth ballot to head the world's smallest state, has gone on, with a mixture of cunning and daring, to become a global leader—and not just among the Catholic faithful. Although John Paul II vehemently eschews political involvement, his reign—already almost twice as long as the papal average of eight years—is likely to be remembered most for the way he has helped reshape the world.
I had been told that John Paul had never worked harder or waited longer for any other of his sixty-one trips, which together have accounted for more than a year away from the Vatican, than he had for this Baltic tour. The only place he wanted to go to more was Moscow. The Vatican had historically acted most often in behalf of the Baltics among all the former Soviet republics—particularly Lithuania, which was a Catholic bastion in the Russian empire and is the Church's northern most stronghold in Europe. Lithuania's Church was the only institution to challenge Communist rule consistently after the Baltics were annexed by Stalin in 1940. For their efforts hundreds of priests and thousands of the faithful were deported to Siberia. After John Paul's election, in 1978, the Holy See's interest increased. The Pope once disclosed that immediately after his selection he had gone to Saint Peter's crypt, around which the Vatican was built, to pray for Lithuania.
His interest, and the trip, had a personal angle. John Paul's mother was of Lithuanian descent. She died when he was nine—an event that some papophiles contend contributed to his devotion to the Virgin Mary, whose initial is on the lower right quadrant of his coat of arms and who is a constant theme of this papacy.
But papal interest and pressure seemed to avail little. At least twice in the 1980s Soviet authorities formally denied the Pontiff permission to visit Lithuania. Several informal feelers were rebuffed too. Throughout its rule of the Baltics, Moscow rarely acknowledged, much less acceded to, requests, appeals, or protests from the Holy See. Stalin once mockingly commented, "How many divisions does the Pope have?"