A decision to go the extra mile to cover an event, instead of taking the easier route, paid a bonus I could never have imagined. That’s how, I can happily say, I came to be touched by a saint – literally.
He wasn’t officially a saint yet when we came face to face in Cherry Creek State Park, 14 miles outside of downtown Denver, Colo. He was Pope John Paul II, the head of the Catholic Church. As a lifelong Catholic, I was thrilled by an unexpected opportunity to shake his hand.
But as of April 27, the charismatic Polish pope will be formally canonized by the Catholic Church. He will be Saint John Paul II. After that, I will be able to say that I have shaken the hand of a saint – not just an exceptionally good person, but a man officially recognized as a saint by the church. How cool is that?
Our encounter occurred on Aug. 14, 1993, while I was covering World Youth Day for The Buffalo News. An estimated 170,000 teenagers and young adults from 77 countries attended the gathering, which included a Saturday evening prayer vigil in the state park. After the vigil, the young people camped out overnight.
They were joined by another 200,000 people for a papal Mass on Sunday.
I was among dozens of reporters from across the United States and around the world covering World Youth Day, which actually consisted of four days of events, concluding with the Mass.
To cover the prayer vigil, we had the option of riding out to the park on a press bus or watching it on closed-circuit television in the comfort of the media center in a downtown hotel.
Most of the reporters chose to work from the media center. I wanted to experience the event as well as cover it. It made no sense to me to fly from Buffalo to Denver to watch closed-circuit television.
Out in the park, a huge stage had been erected for the vigil and the Mass. Directly in front of it was VIP seating. Off to one side, quite a distance from the stage, was a roped-off area reserved for us – the news media.
As the time for the prayer service neared, the speculation in the press area was that John Paul would arrive in his popemobile via a wide walkway that ran through the center of the VIP section. We were wrong.
Instead, the popemobile stopped at the edge of the press section. Pope John Paul got out and began walking slowly along the rope that formed the front of our reserved space. The few of us who were there instinctively moved forward to get as close to him as possible. To our delight – and surprise – the holy father began blessing us as a group and extending his hand to greet each of us individually.
I don’t recall what either of us said – if anything – as we shook hands. I remember that the pope nodded slightly and smiled. I nodded in response, awed by the aura of holiness that seemed to surround him.
I remember wondering afterward if this encounter could tarnish my objectivity as a reporter. On the other hand, refusing to shake hands with the pope – the opportunity of a lifetime – would have been just plain silly. How could it damage my credibility?
During 42 years as a newsman, I’ve shaken countless hands. The only handshake I’ll never forget is the one with a future saint. What a reward for going the extra mile.