A long time ago, when the world was getting used to a polish pope who'd laugh about the nickname he'd given himself -- J2P2 -- people began to notice the eyes. There was a young woman who hobnobbed with prime ministers, and whose bad memories of Catholic school had lapsed into an urbane and secular world. Her name is Suzanne and she happens, by the way, to be my wife.
Suzanne: “Well, this was 1980 and I was press secretary to [the Canadian] prime minister.”
It was a perk to go to Italy for a summit meeting and a surprise to be offered a Vatican audience. He would be, she assumed, like other powerful men who parade importance like a suit. But he wasn't.
Suzanne: “And so this moment occurred and I was determined to be as sophisticated and worldly as possible. And then I gazed into this man's eyes, the Pope's eyes. And they were the most remarkable eyes I've ever seen… I've never seen a pair of eyes before or since. Incredibly deep, incredibly deep blue, a beautiful shade of blue. And when he looked at me, it was almost as though I had completely revealed myself to him. And it wasn't a religious experience. It was just -- he saw right through me.”
And there she was, the proud professional woman blasé about mere power, suddenly a blushing school girl in the presence of the man with those eyes. There is, of course, a multitude of such stories, legends almost, about a pope whose momentary presence in people's lives plays back, slow motion, in vibrant color, maybe for the rest of their lives.
Back in 1985, NBC's Tim Russert was at the Vatican to help arrange network access to Holy Week festivities.
Tim Russert: “Suddenly there appeared in white, the pope. He laughed immediately, and said, ‘They tell me you’re a very important man from NB-Chi… And I said, ‘Your holiness, with all respect there's only two of us in this room and I'm a very distant second.’ He laughed again, put his hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eye and said, 'right.’”
How does anybody, TV star or not, forget what happened a year later, when Tim and his wife returned to Rome with their baby.
Russert: “The pope saw him in the front row, made a bee-line for him, picked him up hugged him, kissed him and kept saying, very nice, very nice. When we first went he could come down that center aisle with pretty good speed.”
Father David Beauvais, from Rockford, Ill., met the pope in those first robust days, when David was a young priest studying in Rome.
Father David Beauvais: “And he was focused right on you. Again he had that ability whoever he was talking to he could just capture them and that's what he did for all of us.”
All of us? For a decade and a half, father Beauvais escorted Rockford parishioners to Rome for New Year's Eve mass. So they watched, with the rest of the world, the disease get hold of him, saw each year the Parkinson's bend and twist his athletic frame, slacken his jaw. So lately, visits have been bitter-sweet.
Beauvais: “With each year of course you'd see him slow down. The last few years, he was on a platform. Now he couldn't walk on his own. Then the next time he was on a chair and that was the last time we went a year ago.”
The disease was cruel and attacked without mercy. But somehow, said the Rockford parishioners, it spared those amazing eyes.
There was Janelle, from Alberta Canada, who just got lucky; picked to sing for the pope; and even luckier, to meet the now old and ravaged man.
Janelle: “I came before him and knelt down and I kissed his ring as is customary and I looked up into his face and I just started bawling like a baby. It was such an amazing experience.”
Then he did something so tender that Janelle can still hardly believe it happened.
Janelle: “He took my head into his hands and he laid my head on his chest and stroked my hair and whispered ‘sh.’”
When she looked up, she was mesmerized.
Janelle: “I looked into his eyes and I can remember thinking gosh I can see the wrinkles in his face and I can see that he's got bags under his eyes and he's tired and he's worn out and yet when I looked into his eyes there was a sparkle there that was unbelievable, and they were so youthful and so full of hope and it was as if they were saying to me, I believe in you, I trust in you. I bent over and whispered in his ear, ‘je t'aime,’ which means I love you in French.”
It was a crippled pope, suffering himself, who prayed for the firefighters of New York City. He couldn't have known that what happened had all but killed faith as far as New York City fireman Daniel Nigro was concerned.
Daniel Nigro: “You know Sept. 11 was the worst day of my life without a doubt -- 343 firefighters died with thousands of other people that day. Many friends died. Your faith -- and I consider myself a person of faith -- was absolutely shaken.”
And then, out of all that gloom, there was an invitation to go to Rome. Nigro wasn't sure he should go at first. There was too much to do at home, and he just didn’t know what to expect. And then, as he stood before the Pope and looked his eyes, the faith began to come back.
Nigro: “The pope offers his hand. I think that's the close as you can come to God's hand. When you leave his presence you feel a better person a stronger person. No matter how frail he was, he carried on as the pope. So we could go back and carry on.”
In the last hours of the pope's life, a singer named Tony Melendez announced a dedication at a concert he was giving, and he remembered a day when the pope was still strong, young, almost crisscrossing the United States like a rock star.
Tony Melendez: “And he stepped out, these big screens -- boom -- all of a sudden came on.”
That was when Tony, born without arms, a thalidomide victim, was asked to sing for the pope for a worldwide television audience. Was he nervous? Imagine. It was something, singing that song, the pope and all those people there. But it was what happened afterwards that was electric; changed his life.
Melendez: “When I finished the song, I remember the young people, 6,000, stood, standing ovation. So, I'm kind of saying 'thank you' with my head and with my lips. Next thing I know, I turned around and the pope had jumped off the stage, which was close to four feet, so it was a good drop. It’s not just like a step down. And he's working his way over to me. And here I am, sitting on a platform, and he was reaching up with one hand, and 'come a little closer' is what he was trying to say to me. So I moved the guitar over a bit and knelt down and that’s where we shared the kiss.”
Tony had wanted to be a priest. Someone in the lower reaches of church bureaucracy had told him he couldn't, a man without arms like him. And then the pope himself gazed down from his podium and gave Tony the assignment of his life. He said his wish was for Tony to continue giving hope to others.
“I was trembling, from emotion, from that moment. Not expecting any of that ever to happen. All I can say is thank you to him, for being just loving, just a genuine person that is not afraid to reach out to the simplest person.”