His chartered Aer Lingus 747 was high over the Atlantic when Pope John Paul II accepted the flight crew’s invitation to visit the cockpit. Sensing the Holy Father’s keen interest in the panoply of electronic equipment, the pilot asked if he would like to take the controls. The Pontiff demurred. “This is one thing,” he said, “for which Providence cannot give a guarantee.”
In John Paul’s tumultuous first full year in the papacy, he rarely demonstrated such reticence. Since last January he has journeyed to the Dominican Republic and Mexico, made a precedent-shattering visit to his native Poland, undertaken triumphant pilgrimages to Ireland and the U.S. and traveled to Turkey to work toward Roman Catholic reconciliation with the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Everywhere but in overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey, the Pope was greeted by jubilant throngs. But he was not content to play crowd-pleaser; he was a man with a message—not always an easy one. In a changing world, he told his fellow Catholics, some things must not change—among them the church’s condemnation of birth control, divorce and abortion. Though John Paul was startled by the passionate intensity with which an American nun, Sister Theresa Kane, pleaded for the ordination of women, he rejected the idea gently but forcefully.
A vigilant conservative in these matters of doctrine, John Paul has emerged simultaneously as a leader of palpable humanity and personal strength. Energized by human contact, he shook tens of thousands of hands and bestowed his benedictions abundantly. During his visit to Washington, local Carmelites brought two huge bells (named “John” and “Paul”) to the home of the apostolic delegate to be blessed by the Pope. He stopped off in the garden and did so. Before the year was over, John Paul had also kissed, squeezed, patted and consoled countless children. In the U.S. one father rushed forward with his son for a blessing. When the Pope came out of a reception two and a half hours later, the man and his wife were still there. This time the mother ran up with the child. The Pope held up his hand. “No, no,” he said with a smile. “I blessed him already.”