ROME -- A few minutes before Pope John Paul II's weekly audience, Ireland's surprising World Cup soccer team walked down the center aisle to a standing ovation from almost 7,000 people in the great auditorium in the Vatican.
The Irish, wearing green warm-up suits, were ushered to seats of honor ahead of the first row, to the right of where the pope would soon be seated in a huge, straight-back, tan velvet chair to speak in seven languages with the throng of visitors.
My ticket read: ingresso C, prima fila S, No. 21. My wife had No. 20. Each usher we passed gestured us forward. We took our seats in the first row, 50 feet from the pope's chair, 20 feet from the Irish team. The location almost directly in front of a large modern sculpture of Jesus Christ's ascension into heaven was as stunning as it was humbling.
Tall Jack Charlton, a star on England's 1966 World Cup champion who went to Ireland to coach, had a corner chair in the front row with his team. Others along the row included Irish captain Mick McCarthy, whose green playing jersey would be presented to the pope; David O'Leary, whose decisive penalty kick moved the team past Romania on Monday in the round of 16, and Ray Haughton, a white-haired trainer who held a soccer ball autographed by the players that also would be offered to the pope.
"Five years ago, Jack Charlton promised me he'd take us to Rome to see the pope," Haughton would say later, recalling Charlton's dedication to producing a strong Irish team for the '90 Cup even though no Irish team ever had made the finals. Yet here they were, in Rome to play a quarterfinal match Saturday night against heavily favored Italy.
The order of events was announced and the pope appeared from off stage sharply at 11 a.m. The press-and-photographers' area to the pope's left was unusually crowded to record the visit of the upstart Irish. Among groups from around the world -- including an especially large number from the pope's native Poland -- were Irish citizens located in the front rows close to their team, their eyes riveted on the supreme pontiff.
Following a prayer and a Biblical reading, the white-robed John Paul II delivered an address in different languages and gave his Apostolic blessing. He introduced and greeted various visitors, including several choral groups who stood and sang for about 30 seconds each.
A cluster of Spaniards sang and clapped; a group of Czechoslovakians raised their flag; Polish stood in such numbers that the pope gave a spontaneous greeting while waving both hands; he blew a kiss to a group of nuns; he seemed moved when children sang.
"I greet members of the Irish football team," the pope said to great applause. While only occasionally adding extemporaneous comments, he had an eye for the Irish players and a short but clearly sincere message.
Looking their way and giving them an affectionate wave, he said with a broad smile, "Best wishes." He then burst out laughing.
They, in turn, listened intently to him. Players in the back rows craned to see. Like the pope, they responded to a group of Italian children who sang, adding hearty applause.
Later, John Paul II greeted hundreds, going deep into the middle of the auditorium, waving, blessing, grasping hands, exchanging words, placing his hand on a priest's head, acknowledging many who had sung their native songs or hymns when they had been introduced.
Then he moved along the row where we sat.
As he extended his hand, I told him that this year my wife and I were celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary, which caused him to pause. He bowed to us and as I held his hand I asked him if he had any message for Americans who would be preparing to serve as hosts for the World Cup -- known here as the Mondiale -- in 1994.
He had begun moving on a step toward my wife but said, "1994?"
I had been told he does not like to use translators, and while he understood the question he appeared to be making certain of the year as spoken in English. Indeed, knowing that the next World Cup would be played in the United States, he retraced his step and said earnestly, "I hope for the best for 1994."
The positive aspects of sports in drawing people together are on his mind. That was the theme of his speech here May 31 when he blessed the Olympic Stadium. When I mentioned the gist of his words that day, he nodded several times in assent.
"God bless your family," he said.
He seemed able to focus deeply on each individual, no matter the number he greeted. While his address this morning had been serious but at the same time one that held out hope -- the fullness to which anyone can grow spiritually -- he clearly enjoyed meeting people, and struck me as possessing an indefinable quality that can touch a person in an instant.
He also can enjoy himself. When introduced to Charlton, who is known as "The Boss," John Paul II, pleased to meet him and seemingly pleased with himself for knowing of Charlton, responded, "The Boss, the Boss, the Boss."
The players laughed and shook the pontiff's hand as he moved among them. In congratulating them, he mentioned the fact that penalty kicks were needed to decide Ireland's scoreless overtime game against Romania.
As the pope mingled with the team, Irish people in the audience sang, to the tune of "Those were the days my friend . . . ":
"We are the boys in green/ The best you've ever seen./ We've just made his-to-ry /We're off to It-a-ly."
"I've had an ambition to meet the pope as long as I have lived," said McCarthy, the team captain. "It's a very personal thing. I can't say any more."
The pope focused much attention on young people -- the Irish players, teenagers in the audience he reached out to, small children, crippled youngsters.
The attention surrounding the World Cup has given him the opportunity to stress the "healthy" interest provided by sports. As he said at the Olympic Stadium, while warning against any violence by overzealous fans:
"Sport is certainly one of the most popular human activities and can greatly influence people's behavior, especially that of the young.
"But it too is subject to risks and misunderstandings, and must therefore be directed, developed and guided so as to express its potential in a positive way. . . .
"It is necessary to overcome the dangers which threaten modern sport, from the obsessive preoccupation with gain to the commercialization of almost every aspect of sport . . . from the use of doping and other forms of fraud to violence."
To him, the soccer championship of the world that will be coming to America "can become a festival of solidarity between the peoples."
As he speaks to large groups and especially in one-on-one encounters, John Paul II's magnetism attracts people of various beliefs. "I'm not a Catholic," Charlton said later, "but I enjoyed it. The players enjoyed it. The lads had expressed an interest before we got to Rome to see the pope. It's a memory they'll take back and certainly think of for the rest of their lives."
"Every player with us had the ambition to meet the pope," Haughton said, "and we got the opportunity through football. It was an unbelievable time, a time we had dreamed of for so long, a dream come true for all the lads."
They had been directed to a convenient exit and most of the audience had departed. The pope had a few last matters to attend to. At the end, he shook hands with some priests and, with that, walked off. He had spent 2 hours 8 minutes of what must have been in a way known only to him an experience that could move a person as it surely did us. My wife and I walked out a side door onto a cobblestone path.
After a few steps, I turned back, wanting to look inside a last time. But just then, a guard closed and locked the immense doors. I was only momentarily disappointed, because I realized then that what had happened inside was locked in my mind forever.