The papal plane, Aer Lingus One, readies for takeoff from the Rome Airport runway and immediately the mutterings from the press begin about the crowding -- we're packed together 10 abreast while the other sections are virtually empty. Over the intercom comes canned music -- they're playing "The Streets of Laredo" -- a mournful cowboy lament, rather an odd choice for such a journey of peace. But my companion seems to fit into the goomy mood; he's reading "Crime and Punishment."
The flight attendants are passing out souvenirs commemorating the "Visit to Ireland of John Paul II, 1979" and, says one in classic Gaelic accent, "Holy Father, we're honored by the presence of Your Holiness abroad the Flying St. Patrick. . ." The pope is forward in his private cabin, which comes equipped with bed and crucifix attached to the walls and lined with scenes of Irish history. And now, finally, after many frustrating days of struggling with an impenetrable Vatican bureaucracy, we're off.
John Paul leaves on his mission to Ireland and the United States speaking of peace and reconciliation and an end to violence and bloodshed. These, of course, will be easier to express than to achieve.
Insoluble as Ireland's problems seem, with Christians killing each other for years, the trouble he's leaving behind in the Catholic country of Italy over which he holds special spiritual sway are no less difficult. In the last few days, a top executive of Fiat has been murdered by terrorists and a new round of "kneecappings" -- the maiming of people with gunshots to the knees -- has begun with the wounding of professors in Padua.
These brutal acts of terrorism prove nothing, alter nothing, but continue because they have become a virtual way of life. So, too, have the acts of petty corruption and bribery that mark so much of everyday Italian life.
When added to the bureaucratic snarls that are, apparently, to be expected, or at least to be endured, the sheet logistics of reporting the papal journey often prove defeating. For many preparing to set out with the pope on his extraordinary personal pilgrimage, the last 24 hours before departure was a nightmare of mishaps.
To speak personally, first there were the priceless Vatican credentials that became invalid because they were incorrectly made out and the "special pen" to correct them could not be found. Then the equally vital Irish credentials inexplicably failed to arrive until hours before the plane was to depart, and finally the hotel, at the last moment, refused to accept payment with a credit card.
In an act of splendid grace, the hotel manager relented, with a generous smile, and said: "Don't worry, Mr. Johnson, don't get excited, everything will be all right. You are going on the Plane of Peace."
Not long after we passed over Genoa heading for the Swiss Alps and then across France to the English Channel, the press began moving forward down the 747's aisles, hoping to catch a sight of the pope making an expected visit to the captain and crew. Despite repeated pleas to take their seats, the crowd kept gathering. Shortly after 9 this morning, the announcement came over the intercom: "His Holiness has left the papal cabin and is heading toward the cabin and crews." The crush was on.
From far in the front, amid the tangle of TV equipment and the photographers jamming the aisles and standing on seats, the lights picked out the distant figure of the pope, white cap set off by his ruddy face, making his way steadily through what looked to be an impassable mass.
The procession moved on, with an air of fenzy I've seldom if ever seen on any number of presidential or political trips stretching over more than 20 years. Only the pope seemed at ease as he made his way through the throng.
He had a somewhat bemused look and his eyes were twinkling as he finally came into full view. John Paul has a most expressive face, it's hard to imagine him looking impassive. To the shouts and cries and questions he smiled, shrugged, shook hands, offered blessings on left and right, and continued on.
A British reporter thrust a microphone in his face and asked: "Holy Father, are you worried about the possibility of violence in Ireland?" The pope gave an exquisite shrug and, still looking bemused, said: "Maybe." He smiled again, and added: "Not much. I am traveling in the hands of God."
By now we were over the Welsh coast at Strumble Head, on a northwest tack for Killiney. The plane was already descending as the pope passed from view forward. Soon we were in Irish air space, off Courttown over County Wexford. Within seconds, it seemed, you could see Irish Air Corps jets, a pair of them off each wing. We were moving up the river Liffey; then we banked, and off the right side, down below on the Irish countryside, you could see the ground darkened with masses of people.
The motorcade from the Dublin airport moved slowly through the city on a sparkling fall day with strong gusts of wind rustling the trees along the route. Coming for a glimpse, walking in endless columns five and six abreast from all directions, were the citizens of Ireland. All were heading toward Phoenix Park, a vast area of green in the midst of their capital.
As far as you could see, the park was covered with people. Some say more than a million were there but that isn't what mattered. They sat quietly on the benches and the ground, waiting. It was not, at first, a demonstrative gathering. But the moment John Paul II appeared before them, giving the familiar papal blessing, they erupted in waves of sound. Many people choked back tears, others wept openly.
It was a sight that wiped away all the petty frustrations of the preceding hours. Now, as I write nearly five hours later, that crowd is still standing, singing, chanting, waving as the pope passes back and forth among them standing up in a yellow van. It is surely an outpouring of emotion and affection that few have ever experienced.