He stands before a great crowd, a throng of millions, and infuses it with the warmth and intimacy of a private chat in a cozy pastoral study.
Each individual in the reverent multitude senses that this pope is his -- that the Holy Father might even remember him should they meet again.
This is the very special style of John Paul II.
From his first appearance on the Vatican balcony a year ago, on his trips to Mexico and Poland -- indeed, everywhere he goes -- the pope leaves an indelible impression: a feeling that beneath the grandeur of papal trappings is a simple human being who laughs and cries, eats and sleeps and dreams, blunders and regrets.
He is, as British Catholic writer Norman St. John Stevas observed, not merely a liberal leaning pope -- on theological matters he is decidedly not -- nor merely a modern pope in his urge to travel -- Pope Paul VI did that, too. John Paul II is, rather, a pop pope -- a people's pontiff, a figure whose spontaneous manner is both majestic and cheerful, exuding strength, authority and vigor while also conveying a reassuring informality.
"The first thing that strikes you about Pope John Paul is that he has stepped down from the pedestal," remarked a high ranking Jesuit in Rome.
"He is a free man," said another Roman priest, who portrayed the pope as a person so convinced of his mission, so buoyed with his own unshakable faith that he has the confidence to behave as his instincts dictate. "In other words," he said, "he is concerned with doing what he believes is right and not in acting in accordance with papal precedent."
To those steeped in the old church way, the change is stunning: "The contrast with Pope Paul, who embodied the Vatican style, was clearly quite remarkable," recalled a priest after an initial meeting with the new pontiff. "Paul was always aloof, constrained, formal and papal. When I saw John Paul II it was clear that he was a flesh-and-blood man. He welcomed me, told me to sit down. Then he put his elbows on the desk, propped his chin on his hands and grilled me about my situation."
An American cleric was similarly taken aback. "My God," he said, "he crossed his legs, rested his face on his arm on the armrest and talked. All I could think was 'Wow, is he different from the mold!' "
But his unique style extends far beyond just the way he talks to priests in cloisters.
More than any other pope in modern history, John Paul seeks out people, mingles with them, craves company and genuine fellowship. In Rome he has already performed the marriage of a streetcleaner's daughter, baptized two children and kissed a woman afflicted with incurable cancer. He opened the summer palace at Castel Gandolfo to groups of young Catholic pilgrims and spent hours singing and dancing with them in the cool air of the Roman Castelli Hills.
In Mexico, despite crowds at times overwhelming in size and emotion, the pope seemed to revel in being the center of attention and adulation. Yet the manner was never smug -- it was unabashed pleasure at the contact. At the shrine of Guadaloupe, with millions at his feet, two priests were desperately trying to keep umbrellas over his head to shield him from the sun. But the pope wouldn't have it. He kept brushing them aside and striding back to the pulpit to give the throngs another look.
With the practiced skill of a political showman, John Paul used the informal nod, wave and wink to maximum effect. No child was ever too heavy to pick up and sling over a hip, no wall or protective barrier too high to life a five-year-old over. His twinkling eye would roam the gatherings, searching for opportunities to make yet another gesture of contact.
At times his yearning to communicate was poignant. Often after laboriously reading his speech in droning but basically correct Spanish, the pontiff would be at a loss. His texts were carefully prepared for him in advance, but when the audiences would cheer and he struggled to respond, all he had were a few fractured phrases, "Gracias, muchos," he shouted.
In Poland, his native land, such frustrating limitations on his ebullience were gone; his rapport with the people was total.
This proved to be a pope who could quip over seemingly solemn matters. At the end of a mass for nuns at one stopover, the pontiff had to push his way through the crowd to get out, but the crush was so thick that he couldn't budge.
"Please, please," he was heard to say with a grin, "the church has to move forward."
At times, to the unending delight of his listeners, the pope even tweaked himself. Late one night in Krakow, scores of joyful young people gathered in front of the baroque palace where the pope was staying, where he had lived for many years while serving as Krakow's archbishop. Suddenly the pope appeared at the window, plainly exhausted yet smiling from ear to ear. He was so hoarse he could barely speak.
"What's this? What's this?" he croaked. "You never did this when I was only a cardinal." Then he and everyone else roared.
Often in Poland, the pontiff referred to himself as just the "retired archbishop of Krakow." "Imagine," he said at one point, "I went to Rome and now I find my old job has been taken by someone else!"
At Jasna Gora, Poland's holiest shrine, a high mass on a glorious, warm and sunny morning was converted into a family celebration with an infectious festivity that none present is likely to forget. The pope repeatedly put aside his prepared homily to sing and hum, or chat amiably about his happiness at the occasion, about the bishops who were guests from lands as distant as Japan, and about his own mischievousness at prattling on so.
"I'd better get back to reading," he said brightly with a bow to his official entourage, "or else they will shout at me for making this too long."
But the pope's sentiments in Poland were not always so lighthearted. The pontiff's celebrated visit to Auschwitz and his hours spent there among the relics of Nazi horror touched Poles -- and the pope -- in profound ways. Embellishing his Vatican supplied text, he talked particularly about the fate of Jews. Standing atop an altar built on the site of the rail platform where victims for the gas chamber were chosen and herded to their death, the pope declared: "The very people that received from God the commandment "Thou shalt not kill' itself experienced in special measure what is meant by killing. It is not permissible for anyone to pass by this with indifference."
This was an especially sensitive message for Poles, who still squirm at recollections of their own anti-Semitism and whose government in anti-Zionist zeal has played down the fate of Jews in World War II. To an outsider it was as if the pope was as if the pope was taking his beloved countrymen on a journey through the dark recesses of their conscience.
For all the exuberance of his winning style, the other side of John Paul II, the serious side, is also compelling. Coming from a land where the official doctrine of the state is atheism and where the church has nevertheless flourished in adversity, the pope has a tough-minded devotion to traditional values.
When the smiling stops and the sermon begins, the pontiff's call to the faithful -- in Poland and wherever else the church feels its survival challenged -- is to stand firm. With 2 million people arrayed before him on his last morning in Krakow, the Pope declared: "You must be strong, dear brothers and sisters. You must be faithful. Today more than in any other age, you need this strength . . ."
"Never," he cried out, "never lose your spiritual freedom with which 'He makes a human being free.' "
As one, the crowd began prolonged rhythmic applause. The intertwined themes of renewed devotion and political freedom are to be as much a part of Pope John Paul II's papacy as his already legendary humanity.
Still, the picture that remains most vivid in the mind's eye is what one Italian called "the Polish ham": the crowd-pleaser, the people-toucher, the heart-warmer.
For bringing this intimacy to the Vatican and to the world at large, John Paul II has earned his place of honor.