Before he became Pope John Paul II, says a Polish editor who knows him well, the athletic archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Karol Wojtla, accidentally crossed the Czechoslovak border while skiing in the Tatra Mountains south of Krakow.
Border guards arrested him and would not let him go until church authorities had confirmed his identity.
This anecdote, related by Jersy Turowicz, editor of a left-wing Polish Catholic publishing group, was passed along to the Polish ambassador to Italy, who said he could well believe it.
The governor of the Bank of Poland, the ambassador said, had once wandered across the border in similar fashion. When a frontier guard questioned his identity, the governor produced some currency with his signature on it.
The border guard saluted and apologized, adding: "That must be very hard work, signing all those bills."
THE ITALIAN PRESS has been publishing a lot of unlikely anecdotes about the new Pope. Corriere della Sera told how he was knocked off his motorbike one night while going home from his factory job, and doctors determined that the concussion he suffered had dramatically improved his memory.
Another story said that he often stays up all night, arms spread wide in the form of a cross, praying for the health of sick friends.
It has also been reported that the Pope had been married and that his wife had died in a German forced labor camp during World War II. The Pope's Polish friends of many years back up the Vatican's firm denail of that story.
The friends may be more credible than the Vatican press office. In most instances, it simply will not accept inquiries about such ascertainable things as details of the new Pope's biography.
Worse yet, when the new pope's predecessor died, the press office issued misinformation that eventually fueled speculation that there was something fishy about John Paul I's death.
The press office said that his body was found by his secretary, the Rev. John Moe, when it was in fact discovered by the nun who usually brought his breakfast. The Vatican apparently felt that discovery of the pope's body by a woman might be misinterpreted.
In what must have been an attempt to romanticize the pope for history, the press office also said that John Paul was reading the theological classic, "the imitation of Christ," when death struck. His doctor later said that his hands were grasping the text of a sermon he had already delivered.
The press office also had put out word that John Paul I had stayed up far into the night writing his first speech to the cardinals. Since then, critics of the speech among the cardinals have said that it was written for him by the Vatican staff.
NOT ALL cardinals seem equally impressed with the new pope's stature as a philosopher. Speaking of his first long speech to the cardinals, Britain's Cardinal George Hume, the archbishop of Westminster, said, "I became increasingly flabbergasted and amazed at the pace it went on, especially as it was warm. Asked if he thought John Paul II had written it himself, Hume said he was sure the speech at least reflected the Pope's own thoughts.
Cardinal Hume said he had not read the pope's book of meditations in Italian because he had "only reached page five" in his Italian grammar and had no intention of studying beyond that.
Hume may have been as disappointed in the election as some of the Italians. The Manchester Guardian had published a front-page story saying that Hume's name was "on all lips" as a possible pope. Asked what he was thinking when he went into the conclave, Hume said, "nobody knows what I had in mind before I went in. I'm going to the tomb with it."
THE PATTERNS of alliances among cardinals that led to the unexpected election of the Polish archbishop were uncannily predicted in February in a novel called "The Final Conclave."
In the book, an attempt by a Soviet cardinal to force the election of a pro-Communist pope is defeated by a decision to give up sovereignty over Vatican City and participation in wordly affairs.
The book by a former Jesuit priest named Malachi Martin describes how the U.S. and German cardinals, frightened by the Latin Americans' flirtation with Marxism, encouraged their Polish colleagues to break with a growing group of prelates ready to accommodate to communism.
Martin writes that the U. S. cardinal's believe that "the one central question to be decided about the next pontificate concerns Marxism, alliance with Marxists, and the attitude of the church to Marxist government." There is indeed a school of Jesuit thought in Rome that holds that the ideological relationship with communism is the central question facing the church.
The West German cardinals have recently expressed similar concerns. Fears are frequently expressed in church circlese that the Italian cardinals are getting so used to the idea of the "historic compromise" between the Christian Democratic and Communist parties in Italy that they are no longer the reliable bulwark against communism they once were.
Martin's "The Final Conclave," speaks of the "untold influence with the German and Austrian cardinals" of the Polish cardinals, Primato Stefan Wyszynski and Karol Wojtyla.
IT also speaks of cardinals "crisscrossing" the world in "pre-conclave electionering" - reminding some persons of Wojtyla's visits to Polish emigre communities all over the world.
IT IS BECOMING clear that Cardinal Franz Koenig of Vienna played a key role in selling Wojtyla to the conclave. The 73-year-old Austrian is the church's acknowledged authority on relations with Eastern Europe.
In an interview on Austrian television this week, Koenig said that the Italian cardinals found it hard to break with the 456-year-old tradition of electing Italian popes and could not bring themselves to vote for a foreigner.
Koenig is said to hae brought forth Wojtyla's name in August at the conclave that elected Archbishop Albino Luciani of Venice as pope. He is now said to have mounted a major effort on Wojtyla's behalf during the lunch break between the morning and afternoon sessions of the second day of this most recent conclave.
An Italian Jesuit priest who is a student of the College of Cardinals said that if lobbying had not already been going on for Wojtyla he could not have been elected in only two days of voting.