04/17/2008 05:47 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Popes I Have Known

As a Catholic, I'm watching with great interest the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the U.S., even though I had only a glimpse of him as he left the White House Wednesday after his meeting with President Bush.

Benedict is the seventh pope in my lifetime, beginning with Pius XI, who died in 1939, three years after I was born, followed by Pius XII, an austere figure who died in 1958, the year I graduated from college. He in turn was succeeded by John XXIII, who triggered the greatest change in the Catholic Church since the Reformation by convening the Second Vatican Council. Then came Paul VI in 1965, the year I arrived in Washington as a newspaper correspondent, followed in 1978 by the short-lived papacy of John Paul I, who reigned only 33 days before his death opened the way for John Paul II.

I recount this recent papal history by way of explaining my personal encounters with two popes, Paul VI and John Paul II, and a less personal one with John Paul I.

In 1967, I accompanied Vice President Hubert Humphrey as a reporter on a trip through Western Europe that was marked by huge antiwar protests everywhere he went. During a stop in Rome, Humphrey met with Paul VI at the Vatican, and because I represented newspapers in Humphrey's home state of Minnesota, I was assigned to the pool that covered his papal audience.

While introducing his entourage to the pope, the gregarious Humphrey attempted some humor by telling the pope that his administrative assistant, David Gartner, "is a member of your faith but he often misses Mass." No sooner had Humphrey returned home than Gartner's mother called him from Des Moines, Iowa, to inform him the bishop of Des Moines had called to ask why her son was neglecting his religious duties.

Then, in January, 1977, just days after President Carter's inauguration, I accompanied Vice President Walter Mondale on a trip through western Europe and Japan, as his press secretary. The trip included a stop in Rome and the obligatory papal audience, also with Paul VI, where I shook the hand of a pope for the first time.

But this climactic experience for a Catholic was marred by the fact that Mondale became momentarily flustered as he was introducing his aides, and introduced me as "Jim Johnson," his administrative assistant who was in line behind me. Thus, I finally realized every Catholic's dream of personally meeting a pope, only to be introduced as someone else, and a Norwegian Lutheran to boot.

My next encounter with a pope was more impersonal, when Mondale represented Carter at the funeral of John Paul I in 1978. It was an impressive spectacle, but less impressive than meeting a live pope.

Then, in 1979, when John Paul II wrapped up a six-city visit to the U.S. by celebrating Mass on the National Mall and meeting President Carter at the White House. He was the first pope to visit the White House and I won major points with my Irish Catholic wife and her parents by getting them invited to meet him at a White House reception.

But my ultimate papal encounter occurred the next day, the final day of the pope's visit. He was staying at the Apostolic Delegate's residence in northwest Washington, directly across Massachusetts Avenue from the Vice President's residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory. The State Department and protocol officials handling his visit had arranged for him to use the Vice President's heliocopter pad to fly to Andrews Air Force Base for his return to Rome.

As a kind of quid pro quo, the pope agreed to pay a brief farewell visit to the Vice President to bless him and his family and the Filipino staff, but as Mondale stood outside the residence with Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, a 6-foot-4-inch American prelate who acted as a body guard for the Pope and was president of the Vatican Bank, the pope's motorcade passed by without turning into the driveway leading to the Vice President's house.

A downcast Mondale was reassured by Marcinkus that the driver had only missed the turn, and sure enough, he doubled back and the pope came into the house, met briefly with Mondale, and bestowed a papal blessing on all of us. I remember being impressed by John Paul's charismatic personality, which would make him one of the most popular popes of modern times.

Footnote: History was not as kind to Marcinkus. Known as "God's banker," he became involved in one of the Vatican's biggest financial scandals when Italy's Banco Ambrosiano collapsed in 1982 after the disappearance of $1.3 billion. The Vatican bank was a major shareholder in Banco Ambrosiano, and the Italian government charged Marcinkus as an "accessory to fraudulent bankruptcy." He barely escaped being arrested when he fled to the safety of the Vatican two hours before police arrived.

The Cicero, Ill., native returned to the U.S. in 1990, protesting that he was innocent of any wrongdoing, but his reputation was tarnished and the Vatican bank had to pay $250 million to the Italian bank's creditors. Marcinkus did pastoral work in Chicago and Arizona, where he died in 2006.

Pope Benedict is also staying at the Vatican Embassy, as John Paul was, and I assume he'll use Vice President Cheney's helicopter pad to fly to Andrews Air Force Base enroute to New York City on Friday. I hope Cheney has made a deal to get a papal blessing as well. God knows, he can use it.