Eyewitness: How John Paul made an Italian-American “part Polish”

May 1, 2011

Reuters Vatican correspondent Philip Pullella covered the late Pope John Paul for almost all of the pontiff’s 26-year papacy and followed him on most of his many voyages around the world.  In keeping with news agency tradition, his reports focused on the pope and rarely if ever mentioned his own feelings as he followed him year in and year out. On the day that John Paul was beatified, we want to break that tradition and give readers Phil’s personal view of his experience covering the Polish pope.*

By Philip Pullella

Phil Pullella with Pope John Paul on the papal plane returning from a trip to Kazakhstan and Armenia, 27 September 2001)

Although I was born in Italy of Italian parents and raised in New York, I consider myself “part Polish”. This is thanks to the man beatified on May 1. But perhaps even more than my proximity to the late Pope John Paul, it was my closeness to his countrymen and countrywomen that left an indelible mark on my soul. And I don’t mean soul in the religious sense, but in the poetic sense. I have no Polish blood, but I have a part-Polish soul. Of this I have no doubt.

My favorite part of  John Paul’s papacy were without question the trips to Poland. I accompanied him on the papal plane on all of the trips except the first in 1979, when I was still in New York.

In Italy, the pope seemed at times to be suffocating. He seemed at times to be forced to be an ITALIAN, which he clearly was not. In Poland, he was Polish.

And that made all the difference both for him and his countrymen. His visits transformed him like a medicine that cures a sick person, and if I can take the liberty of being a bit irreverent, like a wine lover who tastes a fine, rare vintage after a period of being forced to drink a cheap brew.

My trips with the pope to Poland are like milestones of its history in the late 20th century. My first was in 1983 when the country was in the grip of martial law. I remember my translator had a small child and she was worried. Times were tight. Money was tight. I went into one of those notorious “dollar stores”, and bought her some things for her son, chocolate and things like that. She was reluctant, embarrassed. I told her “just tell him it’s from an American uncle in Italy”.

That was the trip when Lech Walesa was still in jail and the pope met him in the mountains. That was the trip that included the showdown with Jaruzelski. That was the trip of tension tempered by joy.

(Pullella seated in the background during an inflight news conference by Pope John Paul on the papal plane to Cuba, 21 January 1998 )

The trips that followed were road markers on Poland’s voyage towards freedom. By 1991, two years after the fall, it was like the birthday party of a two-year old child. He brought a nice gift — himself — and a parental warning — “be careful as you grow.”

In 1997 and 1999 the unwritten message seemed to be “I can’t be with you forever” and in 2002 everyone knew it was the last time.

During his pontificate, I always considered Poland my “terza patria,” my third homeland after the United States and Italy. I loved going there but most of all I loved the people.

Back in Rome, the Polish community filled this need of mine for Polishness. It was mostly the Polish journalistic community, led by Aleksandra Bajka, that gave me the regular dose of Polishness that I needed like a drug addict needs a fix.

We used to call the city where we lived Rome on the Vistula or Warsaw on the Tiber. We would go to the Polish Cultural Institute for concerts and lectures or to anything that was related to Wojtyla.

I know that some foreign journalists cultivated the Polish journalists to get the inside story but in all honesty, for me that was just a by-product and I had my own sources. I just enjoyed being with Poles.

I remember always making the Polish journalists laugh by referring to Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope’s personal secretary, as “Stan the Man”. The pope himself also enjoyed the local Polish community, even the journalists who he would only see rarely on the trips or when they took part in covering visits by heads of state.

Although he was magical with everybody, there was a certain sparkle that shone in his eyes when he was looking at a Pole, whether it was an elderly woman or a young student. He didn’t even have to ask if people were Polish. He felt it before they approached him. The air was different in the ante-chamber.

A few days after he died, something special happened to me. I was with a small group of journalists who had had been called to form a pool to cover President George W. Bush’s visit to view Wojtyla’s body in St Peter’s Basilica.

(A tapestry of Pope John Paul II is displayed during his beatification mass led by Pope Benedict XVI in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican May 1, 2011/Stefano Rellandini )

After Bush had left, all the journalists left with him. I felt the need to stay behind. I don’t know why. Dziwisz saw me alone, leaning on a pillar and called me over to a small cordoned off section that was right in front of the body. It had been reserved for members of the pontifical household and visiting VIPs. He told the Swiss Guard to let me in and Dziwisz and I sat pretty close to John Paul’s body. I was there for about half an hour but I don’t think I said anything to Dziwisz except “thank you.”

I suppose the people who were watching thought Dziwisz let me into the reserved area because I was a Polish friend.

And they were right. I was.

* This article originally appeared on the Polish website religia.tv, with a Polish translation.

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