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Close encounters with the popes over 3 decades

Tuesday - 2/26/2013, 2:24pm  ET

Rome Bureau Chief Victor Simpson, left, shakes hands with Pope Benedict XVI during the flight from Beirut to Rome, Sept. 16, 2012. Simpson has chronicled four papacies in 35 years covering the Holy See. A Vatican institution in his own right, Simpson has had a unique vantage point on history, enjoying the ear of Vatican insiders and chatting with the pope himself on foreign pilgrimages. (AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano, ho)

VICTOR L. SIMPSON
Associated Press

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- The Middle East Airlines jetliner had barely taken off from Beirut when I was escorted down the aisle to the first-class section and seated beside Pope Benedict XVI. He had just ended a delicate two-day visit to Lebanon as civil war raged in neighboring Syria, and he looked and sounded weary.

It was my 92nd trip aboard a papal plane -- first with the master of papal globetrotting John Paul II, then over the past eight years with Benedict.

As I was planning to retire, the pope's journey in September was to be my last, and Vatican officials thought I should share the moment with him.

I sat beside the pope and shook his hand. "Congratulations on your retirement," he said in Italian as a Vatican photographer recorded the occasion. Speaking in a soft voice, he asked me how many years I had been covering the Vatican. When I told him more than 30, he looked surprised and said my retirement "is much-deserved." Did his thoughts drift to important plans of his own that he was concealing from the world?

There's no way to tell.

But Benedict appeared pleased with our conversation and in no rush to end it. It was his aides who motioned to me that it was time to return to my seat.

The encounter did not prepare me for his stunning announcement five months later that he planned to retire on Feb. 28 -- the exact date I had chosen to retire myself.

___

EDITOR'S NOTE: Rome Bureau Chief Victor Simpson has chronicled four papacies in 35 years covering the Holy See. A Vatican institution in his own right, Simpson has had a unique vantage point on history, enjoying the ear of Vatican insiders and chatting with the pope himself on foreign pilgrimages. He looks back on a storied career.

___

I know a bishop who says he is jealous of the "Vaticanisti" -- reporters on the Vatican beat -- because we get to ask the pope questions that no bishop would dare to broach. And we're often rewarded with a remarkable response.

Sprung from Vatican confines, airborne popes seem to feel freer to speak out.

John Paul II used just such a papal flight in 1988 to issue a ringing endorsement, one of the strongest of his papacy, of fellow Poles striking against communist authorities in the Gdansk shipyard.

It was on a trip to Uruguay, and the pope came to the back of the plane to take questions. When asked about the Solidarity strikes, he responded that the journalist should read his encyclical on work, which lays out his views on the dignity of labor. At that point, the plane was rocked by turbulence and the pilot advised over the loud speaker that the pope needed to return to his seat.

When calm returned, I complained that the pope had never reached my section.

A few minutes later the pope's secretary, Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz (now a cardinal) came and brought me to the pope. He turned off my tape recorder, suggested I ask about the strikes, then turned the recorder back on.

So I asked. John Paul launched into a broadside against communist authorities and lent his full papal support to the strikes.

"Here we are touching the heart of the problem," the pope said. "It is not easy to bring democracy to a system that is by definition dictatorial and totalitarian."

No mention of the encyclical.

The statements, exclusive to AP, hit front pages of newspapers around the world the next day. They were later seen as a landmark in the pope's role in bringing down communism in eastern Europe.

___

Two years earlier, I was asked to join John Paul for dinner in his cabin of a Qantas 747 on the final leg to Rome -- after a two-week trip to Bangladesh, Singapore, Fiji Islands, New Zealand, Australia and the Seychelles.

I was embarrassed at the way I looked: lots of stubble from having shaved at dawn that morning and in a sloppy safari jacket soaked by a monsoon in the Seychelles.

But the pope put me at ease. When I apologized for "my working clothes," he gripped his white robes and said, a twinkle in his eye: "These are my working clothes."

We were joined at dinner by a papal aide and the Australian ambassador to the Holy See.

That's when I found myself in the middle of a diplomatic incident.

The Qantas steward brought wine to the table and the ambassador grabbed a bottle of red and announced we would be having that. But John Paul protested that he didn't drink red wine and wanted white.

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