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Bishop of Roam

John Paul was also an accessible pontiff. Among the papal press, we often referred to him simply as Papa, the Italian for pope, or Papa Wojtyla. It somehow seemed apt in English, too. He treated us as his kids, and even ministered to some of us. He reached out to personally console Associated Press correspondent Victor Simpson and his wife, Daniela Petroff, when their young daughter was among the 20 people murdered in simultaneous 1985 attacks on the Rome and Vienna airports by Palestinian renegades loyal to Abu Nidal.

On most trips he came back on the plane to thank us for traveling with him and then, moving from seat to seat, answered our questions, shared a story or engaged in banter -- usually in whatever language the journalist spoke. He was accessible on any subject, from sex and birth control to modern warfare and economics, and he could be impishly blunt. He once even told us a Polish joke.

In Rio de Janeiro in 1997, the pontiff greeted Dom Helder Camara, the city's archbishop. The pope's invocation of Poland's Solidarity movement inspired Brazilians to rise up against the ruling military junta. (Gregg Newton -- Reuters)

Back then I was often the only woman on the plane and I'm not Catholic, but he was good about spending a fair bit of time with me. One of my favorite mementos of covering the world over the past 30 years is a picture from John Paul's trip back from Japan on Emperor Hirohito's plane. The pope had one arm on my shoulder and the other pointing at me, as if to say, "For once, behave yourself." In fact, he was making a point about nuclear weapons.

On another flight, this time on a tour of Germany, where he had traveled to the border with communist Poland to send a message about freedom, I asked him if he really thought that largely symbolic gestures really accomplished anything. With a twinkle in his eye, he replied, "Can't you ask me a harder question?" He meant it.

The common theme in John Paul's papacy was his refusal to accept limits. He wrote more and traveled more than any other pontiff in history. He was surely seen in person by more people than any other leader in history. He also reached out well beyond his own Christian flock. John Paul was the first pope in 2,000 years of Christianity to enter a Jewish house of worship -- at a Rome synagogue in 1986, he held a joint ceremony with the chief rabbi and spoke in Hebrew. He later prayed with Muslims at a mosque in Damascus, another first.

On the last trip I took with him, his staff and the press were already on board the Alitalia flight while he finished Mass in his private chapel -- in his 14th language, Lithuanian. He'd learned the basics for his trip. As sometimes happened, he was running a bit late.

"It's not that he's a poor planner -- he's very organized," a Vatican official told me on the eve of that trip, to explain why the Holy See had taken to using a helicopter to transport the pontiff to Rome's airport before his trips abroad. "It's just that he uses every minute to the maximum. And sometimes one minute spills over into the next."

In the end, time was the only limit to John Paul's extraordinary papacy.

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