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Making the papacy more personal

He traveled the globe for a quarter of a century and prayed with millions, yet those who know him say it was Pope John Paul II’s power to touch individual lives that set him apart.
/ Source: NBC News

He was the religious leader of more than a billion people and he seemed intent on reaching out to every one of them, everywhere. Throughout Pope John Paul's long life, he also had a remarkable talent for friendship, for making, and holding onto, personal connections. And he never forgot a face. He traveled the globe for a quarter of a century and prayed with millions, yet those who know him say it was Pope John Paul II’s power to touch individual lives that set him apart.

Strynowski: “Whether they were part of a crowd or just maybe five or six people, there was always the sense that you were included. He was embracing you no matter whether the crowd was big or small.”

Monsignor John Strynowski, who met the Pope dozens of times over the years, remembers a man who readily took to the job.

Strynowski: “The very day after his election he left the Vatican. And there came the Pope's car. And he stood erect and in the car and smiling and waving to people. And it was obvious he knew that he was Pope. You know, he was in charge. And he seemed to have fit right into his role as chief shepherd of the Church.”   

A year later during the Pope's visit to the United States, Monsignor Strynowkski experienced for himself the Pope's uncanny ability to make people feel special.”

Strynowski: “When he came to Yankee Stadium that first visit in 1979, he went around the whole stadium on the field. But it was a strange thing. Our eyes met and he nodded toward me. And so, I nodded back.  And a priest who was up toward the front came running back and said, ‘the Pope recognized somebody here. The Pope recognized somebody here.’ I said, ‘Well, I don't know, I guess in all humility I think I have to say it was me.’ Because we did nod to each other. And so, he had that touch, that ability to reach out to people.”

Gloria Pavul still remembers taking her blind 16-year-old daughter to meet the Pope during his visit to Washington, D.C., in 1979. He stopped to bless the disabled. 

Gloria Pavul: “When he heard me ask if she could see him, he bent down so that she could see him and see his face. And that's when he kissed her on the cheek. And gave her a blessing.”

Though the mother had forgotten a camera that day, when she opened the newspaper the following morning, she saw that the moment had been captured by a photographer, a reminder of a tender and treasured encounter.

One of many, in this time of remembrance. Polish born author Lena Allen Shore struck up a correspondence with the Pope that lasted for 25 years. His letters now give her comfort. They finally met, 18 years after they first started exchanging letters. Lena brought along her son, Jack.

Lena Allen Shore: “He took my son's head in his two hands and he kissed him on his forehead because he knew also that jack lost his father at the age of 11 and he lost his mother at the age of 9 and I knew he wanted to give courage to my son.”

Lena shared a love of philosophy and poetry with the Pope, who was a great admirer of the arts. It was a facet of his personality that endeared him to many musicians.

On a visit to Chicago in 1979, the Pope attended a concert in his honor given by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Victor Aitay was the orchestra's concert master.  He says he didn't pay nearly enough attention to his conductor that night.

Victor Aitay: “One eye was at the conductor, and one eye was at the Pope, and we tried gauge his reaction, and he was attentive and seemed to enjoy it very much.”

This is shot of Pope brining up long-stemmed rose and handing it to Aitay, who puts it on the conductor's stand. Afterwards, the Pope let Aitay and the orchestra know just how much he had enjoyed himself.

Aitay: “He had a way of communicating with his eyes really, and put you in ease.”

Aitay says the Pope's humility and humor entertained the cheering crowd after the concert, when the Pope reminded the audience that he was not the star of the show. It’s a memory of a special night that echoes even more sweetly now.  

A lofty figure with the common touch, a man of God who inspired people to move mountains.

Walensa: “Over 20 years, I was able to get about 10 people to stand with me in a fight against communism in a nation of 40 million people. Then a Pole became Pope. It was an incredible thing.”

Lech Walensa, the former Gdansk shipyard worker says the Pope encouraged him to persevere in forming the solidarity movement that helped break communism's stranglehold on Poland. When he visited the country in 1979, the Pope's words mobilized the nation

Walensa: “Then the Pope said those magic words, ‘Don't be afraid, change the course of the country.’ A year after he left, from those 10 people I had I was able to add 10 million more to our organization. I believe it deeply that this was a gift from the heavens.”

But he told us their many meetings over the years were more than just political.

Walensa: “I am a person of faith so I was meeting with the representative of Christ.”

But it was Pope John Paul's striking humanity that some people remember and his sense of humor.”

Strynowski: “It was that spontaneity and a playfulness. There's a playful spirit about him that I think win's people over.”

A lightheartedness that helped him cope with debilitating illness.

Strynowski:“When he was still walking and he had the cane and he would fool around with the cane.  You know, he would shake it at people and things. But I think that kind of brings together his determination, his courage but at the same time his sense of humor that he [was hurting]. But, you know, we can also laugh about this too. You know, we can we can joke together about this."

In the end, Pope John Paul II place in history is still to be determined, but not the impact he had on millions of people as he touched them one at a time.

Pavul: “I just felt like he was an extraordinary man he was perfect for the job. I think that Pope John Paul 2 has really touched the world.”