John Paul II: The pope I remember
The pope’s physical trials gave him a rare empathy with the sick and a dramatic gesture in Jerusalem brought historic change to the church’s relationship with the Jewish people
Commitment to brotherhood: the pope places a prayer in the Western Wall. Photograph: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty
Cuban women sit in front of one of the numerous billboards throughout Havana welcoming Pope John Paul II to the island. Photograph: AP Photo/Gregory Bull
Religious observance: Pope John Paul II is escorted by Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria (right) in Cairo while Patsy McGarry (far left) looks on. Photograph: AP Photo/Jerome Delay
We were in a monastery garden at the foot of Mount Sinai, but it might as well have been the parish church in Ballydehob. Pope John Paul II was saying Mass to a couple of hundred people as children wailed and loud conversation continued at the back.
This was in 2000, at the Holy Monastery of St Catherine, in Egypt, sited where, by tradition, God is said to have spoken to Moses from a burning bush. And Pope John Paul was transported, oblivious.
As petals from a blossoming tree showered on him, as if to order, he spoke of Sinai as “a soaring monument to what God revealed here.” A God “who is at once close at hand and far away . . . in the world but not of it . . . the name which is no name . . . the divine abyss in which essence and existence are one . . . the God who is being itself.”
It was impossible to avoid being moved by the pope, frail and wilting under the blossoms, who seemed possessed of some sort of spiritual ecstacy.
Travelling with him in those later years, long after his energetic 1979 visit to Ireland, was to witness the often excruciating struggle between his ailing, weary flesh as it fought endlessly with an indomitable spirit. It was a struggle that would continue to the death. It too was part of his armoury.
Two years earlier, in Santiago de Cuba, while we media burned red, doing our best to huddle in the slight shadow of a single bare tree, he visibly wilted as he said Mass. The huge congregation responded anxiously to his obvious suffering. That emotion came to a head at the shrine of St Lazarus in Havana the following night.
As he went among the sick and the infirm to bless them, many of those he touched seemed in far, far better shape than he, with his stick, his slow walk, his laboured speech, his tired, tired face and an almost completely closed eye. Watching him from the choir as he shuffled through the sick, two young girls began to cry.
Before that visit in 1998, the first of a pope to Cuba, it had been billed as an encounter between “the two last great autocrats of the 20th century”, himself and Fidel Castro. They got on famously, with Castro even letting it be known how much he owed the ethic instilled in him by his Jesuit educators.
The pope’s visit there also precipitated the biggest invasion of Cuba by Americans since the Bay of Pigs. It was the background, too, for the fastest evacuation of Americans, when news broke of Monica Lewinsky’s tapes and TV companies called back their heavy guns.
Not all Cubans welcomed the visit. Ray and Lenin, for instance. (“Yes, that’s my name,” Lenin said, with a weary shake of his head). On a potholed side street they were selling cigars on the black market. The pope’s visit was interfering. “There are two million people in Havana, and this week there are one million police,” said an unhappy Ray.