ROME — NBC Nightly News Anchor and Managing Editor Brian Williams is broadcasting all week from the Vatican.
He shares his reaction to the enormous crowds descending on Rome for Friday's funeral, and his personal recollections of Pope John Paul II.
You've reported this week on NBC Nightly News about the millions waiting in line to view the body of the pope. In all your years of reporting, have you ever seen anything like this?
In sheer size, I cannot remember anything like this. In emotion, it does remind me of two other events I have covered: The fall of the Berlin Wall and the initial day after when Easterners were first exploring the West and vice versa; and Election Day in South Africa. All of the people share the sense of the weight of the moment. It is reverential, it is respectful, it is peaceful. Everyone gets along. I watched the group hand-carry a woman who had fainted. Volunteers look out for stragglers and try to reunite people who've become separated. Spontaneous songs break out. The city of Rome and Vatican City have set up these television screens. EMS, street cleaning, water — it is a phenomenal undertaking and no one in Rome or the Vatican could have anticipated this happening. This is like dumping the population of Los Angeles on top of the city of New York.
Everyone knew the pope was suffering and in frail health. Are you surprised by the worldwide reaction and the reaction there on the ground in Rome?
It was arguably the world's most anticipated death and it has had the most surprising impact on everyone. Last night, I met a couple from Philadelphia who could not sit at home another minute and watch the TV coverage. They got on an airplane and came here. Ditto the story of the U.S. Army colonel who was a former aide to General Sanchez in Baghdad , who brought his family here from his post in Belgium. People are drawn here; there is a magnetic tug, and they're not all Catholics, which speaks to the pope's place as a giant of the last century.
What's the makeup of the crowd? Is it largely European or are you finding a good number of Americans like you've pointed out in the last couple broadcasts of NBC Nightly News?
It is a very sporadic thing. An important thing about the crowd is the Italian component. Our veteran producer here, Stephen Weeke, points this out every day. As he puts it, Italians don't "do" lines. They don't do them often. They don't line up for just anyone. That they are in line for up to 11 hours for a Polish pope, who has become in every way an honorary Italian citizen over 26 years, is extraordinary. I was telling someone yesterday that it's as attributable to the first moment of his papacy as anything else. You'll recall as he was announced, he came out and apologized for his sketchy Italian and said "You'll correct me if I get something wrong." That instantly endeared him to the Romans, who often make their judgments about their new pope — a man who carries the title Bishop of Rome — in those first few moments. John Paul II won them over from the moment he appeared on the balcony as Karol Wojtyla of Krakow.
What do you think it is about this pope that connected him to people, even those of different faiths?
The people in these lines are visiting from nations that were transformed during the papacy of John Paul II. He was the first tactile pope, the first truly jet-age pope, the first pope of the media age. As I said on the air following his death on Saturday, he had the foresight, the actor and artist background, the intelligence and the moxie to combine them all into a perfect storm that he used to do his job — and that, as he saw it, was to spread the word of the Roman Catholic Church.
Is there any buzz about who the next pope might be, among other than the media?
It is one of the sidebars going on here. As we are having this conversation, I am watching a Blackhawk helicopter slowly circling on the outskirts of Rome — meaning three U.S. presidents can't be far from touching down. I am watching this teeming media village — this city of tents — where the television networks are set up to do evening newscasts. Sooner or later we will all switch our attention to the conclave on April 18. I just had a conversation with George Weigel, the papal biographer and NBC News Vatican analyst, who is already picking up the first bits of reporting from inside the College of Cardinals. This hermetically-sealed group that this pope took such great pains to make into an even more secretive body, has picked up a little something from American politics: It's still possible to get a leak in this town. Having said that, I learned long ago that predicting a future pope is a lot like being an odds maker — you're right only part of the time. Go back and see how many people had "Wojtyla, Karol" on their notebooks in 1978.
Do you have any personal memories of Pope John Paul II?
I have to begin with a beautiful day in 1979. I was a student at Catholic University, and over the course of two hours, chatted up a Secret Service agent who spilled like a cup of coffee and told me that the pope would be coming our way, straight up the steps of a side door at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I positioned myself and held out my hand and said, "Welcome to Catholic University, Holy Father." And he embraced my hand with both of his, made the sign of the cross, and said a blessing to me.
Years later, when I entered my chosen profession, I covered him in many places. Most notably, I think, was his trip to Cuba. It was such a striking image, such a magical trip to cover, marred, at its height, by a bulletin from the U.S. that Newsweek magazine was running a story about the president and an intern. People forget the media's attention was quickly hauled north to Washington.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints