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April 4, 2005

Thank you, Sir! Dziekuje, Pan!

Roy Meachum

Working the balcony in Papa Pio Auditorium with a camera crew, I thoroughly enjoyed that June morning in 1967; it was really my first day as a foreign correspondent. From the international journalists crowded around, I quickly discovered the big buzz centered on the smiling, affable man sitting stage right among his fellow candidates for elevation to the second highest rank in the Catholic hierarchy.

Polish Archbishop Karol Jozef Wojtyla was the first man to travel through the Iron Curtain to receive his symbolic red hat as a cardinal. There had not even been public acknowledgement of other Eastern European and Chinese prelates lately named princes of the church.

That morning the reason for the enforced secrecy languished as a permanent guest in Hungary's American Embassy, unable to walk the streets of Budapest. Cardinal Jozef Mindzenty had spent much of his ecclesiastical life in prison. He was first freed from a Gestapo jail when the German Army fled before the invading Red Army, only to be locked up again by Communist authorities a few years later, after a show trial that shocked the world. (He didn't escape Hungary until three years after the Papa Pio morning, dying in Vienna in 1971.)

Archbishop Wojtyla had also "enjoyed" the Nazis' "hospitality," but he had proven more than a match for the new Warsaw regime propped up on Soviet bayonets. He was allowed freely to travel to Rome before the 1967 consistory, going back and forth annually for the 1962-65 councils of Vatican II.

As I put the pieces together, the Polish government seemed to prefer him out of the country; at home in Krakow he operated as protecting angel for both Christians - of all faiths - and the few Jews who had survived the Holocaust and returned to what had been under the tsars the ghetto Pale.

Cynics in the balcony observed Moscow and their Warsaw underlings hoped the red hat had brought accompanying orders for Cardinal Wojtyla to reside permanently in the Vatican. It took another 11 years and four months for their hope to become reality, but by then the man on the Papa Pio stage had already helped deliver a mortal blow to Soviet rule.

The camera crew and I were part of a sizeable American media contingent on hand that June morning to report and record a remarkable coup: three U.S. archbishops were up there with their Polish colleague.

John Krol and John Cody were simply continuing tradition. The Philadelphia and Chicago sees automatically commanded a cardinal's rank. But Washington's Patrick Aloysius O'Boyle brought to the Nation's Capitol its very first red hat, and he was why I was there. We remained friends until his death, despite his quick temper that flared when he objected to my reporting.

In any event, because of him I went first to Rome where I spent considerable time over the next few years, covering the Vatican and some time wondering about the remarkable Pole whose personal warmth had figuratively lit up the huge room and all of Conciliazione, the broad avenue that pours into St. Peter's square.

In October, 1978, I was on the other side of the Mediterranean, in the Valley of the Kings filming a documentary about boy pharaoh Tutankhamun, whose sensational exhibition had started in Washington and was then in San Francisco.

Straightening out a bureaucratic tangle brought me down to Cairo from Luxor in October, shortly before my birthday. My good friend, Ahmed Lutfi, the economics editor and columnist for Al-Ahram, the country's largest newspaper, greeted me with "You have a new pope!"

I said, "Yes, I know," thinking he meant John Paul I who had just been consecrated when we shoved off to Upper Egypt where communications with the outside world were still chancy.

"No! No!" My Muslim friend's impatience surprised me. He almost shouted: "You have another new pope! That new one's dead!" Then he explained.

Upon my return to Luxor, while I was in the antiquities office to finish off the bureaucratic business, through the door came the leader of the archaeologists restoring the tomb of Hatshepsut, the only real lady pharaoh. Since the mission was proudly Polish, I offered congratulations on Cardinal Wojtyla, the first non-Italian in modern times to succeed to St. Peter's throne, a great triumph for the small Eastern European nation, especially at that time.

That night I was a fortunate guest at the rollicking celebration, with red and white flags draping the new pope's photograph and the world's best vodka pouring freely; for my hosts and me, that moment offered the promise that the Red Curtain was on its way down.

As you know, it took another 11 years and U.S. President Ronald Reagan was showered with accolades, but the real credit went to the affable man sitting on the Papa Pio stage that 1967 June morning. But his real papal accomplishments happened on a wider scene.

John Paul II impressively expanded the warm humanity John XXIII brought to my beleaguered church by becoming the most traveled pope in history. Everywhere he went even skeptics were impressed by his immense personal warmth and caring. All the world knows he earned quick entry to the company of saints. He does indeed rest in peace. I wish I knew how to say it in Polish. Latin will have to do: Requiescat in Pace, Karol Jozef Wojtyla.

At least I can manage: Dziekuje, Pan. That translates: Thank you, Sir. We are grateful you came to us.

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