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By Bill Gallagher

DETROIT -- When I tell people I actually drank with the pope they usually look at me with disbelief and you-gotta-be-kidding expressions hanging on their faces. But why wouldn't he? He had the opportunity and the motive and he was wonderfully social.

I also predicted the election of the first non-Italian pope in more than 400 years, an act that hinged on an eternal political principle -- he was the only cardinal I knew.

In the years before his death, we focused so much on his long suffering and usually saw him in clear pain and struggling to walk. In his final days, his magnificent voice was garbled and finally silenced.

My memories of him will always dwell around a bright, sunny summer day and an encounter filled with gentle conversation, laughter, vibrancy and fun. I have been blessed in my life with jobs where each day I get to meet different people. Some are interesting. Some are trying. A few are fascinating and unforgettable. I never know which I'll meet each day, bringing mystery to the experience.

I was a member of the Niagara Falls City Council in August 1976 when I got a call from City Hall to see if I could handle an event and greet some VIPs -- about 20 Catholic bishops from Poland visiting the United States and the cardinal leading the delegation.

Sure, I said. I'd performed those duties hundreds of times, often serving as acting mayor in a city that -- because it was Niagara Falls -- got a significant number of important visitors. The assignment was a natural for me. I was Catholic, very interested in the world and, as fate would have it, the only member of the City Council available at that time during the August recess.

The Polish community was naturally involved. John Kopczynski, president of St. Mary's Manufacturing Corp. in North Tonawanda, organized a luncheon at the Parkway Ramada Inn on Buffalo Avenue. Edwin Dojka, our Polish-American city engineer, helped in the hospitality.

The day was exceptional and the view from the dining room overlooking the Niagara River several hundred yards above the falls was stunning. The sky was blue and the water glistened. The cardinal and bishops had attended a Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia and they set aside a couple days to visit Buffalo with its large Polish population and, of course, to see Niagara Falls.

After getting instructions on how to pronounce his name, I greeted Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the Archbishop of Krakow, and welcomed him to the city. He was a striking figure. He was among the youngest in the delegation, with sharp blue eyes, chiseled features and the build of an athlete. He was warm and sincere and smiled at everyone.

He just wanted to relax and enjoy the day. The hostess had asked me earlier if a bar should be set up. I told her I never met a bishop who didn't enjoy a nip or two.

As Jack Foran, then a reporter with the Buffalo Evening News, interviewed the cardinal, several of his colleagues sipped on Johnnie Walker Black scotch. They were all animated and were clearly enjoying a good time.

Over steak sandwiches, the cardinal and I shared a bottle of Beaujolais and talked about Niagara Falls. He was interested in everything. The Ontario Hydro water intake, which looked like a bridge to nowhere spanning half the river, caught his eye. I explained how it worked and the importance of the hydroelectricity the river provides.

I asked him about how the church functioned under a Communist regime. He said it was difficult, but accommodations were made and the government knew how important faith was to the people.

Every few minutes during the meal, one of the bishops would stop at our table and share some conversation, in Polish, of course. I couldn't understand a word, but in every case there was laughter. The bishops were perfectly at ease with Cardinal Wojtyla. It was clear they were, most of all, friends enjoying a day off in a beautiful setting.

After lunch, I said a few words, which one of the bishops translated into Polish. I mentioned that I had graduated from Bishop Duffy, an all-boys Catholic high school, and that most of the best students in my class were Polish. The cardinal beamed. Then I presented him with a key to the city and a brochure about the falls. He was gracious and grateful.

I bid farewell to our guests and they left to go to Prospect Point and Goat Island and to take a ride on the Maid of the Mist. They had a great time.

That night, I told my wife, Elizabeth, how impressive the cardinal was and how nice it would be if someone like him could become the pope.

Fast-forward two years -- I was working in New York City at Kennecott Copper, the company that had bought Carborundum. We were in the midst of a brutal corporate take-over battle. Uncertainty and chaos filled the corporate headquarters in the Chrysler Building.

After the sudden death of Pope John Paul I, I kept telling my co-workers the Polish cardinal I met would be the next pope and I was in line for a job at the Vatican. They all laughed and Rosita Rooney cracked, "That will be the day when we have a Polish Pope."

A few days later, that's just what happened. You could have pushed me over with a feather. When I saw him introduced to the world from the balcony of the Papal Palace, I felt a great connectedness. I even knew how to pronounce his name.

As a reporter, I've seen John Paul II on many occasions. In 1987, when he toured the United States ending in Detroit, I covered the visit. The Mass in Miami was especially memorable. It was a sultry September day. Halfway through the Mass, thunder and lightning filled the air. One particular clap of thunder caused the pope to jump about six inches in the air. I thought, if he's scared, we had better clear out of here. Torrential rain poured down and the crowd of about 200,000 scattered. The Mass was postponed, a papal first. Our camera was soaked and out of commission.

We dried out, repaired our equipment and were off to Los Angeles and San Francisco. In every city, John Paul II showed a magical way with children. He reached out to them with special attention, a gift of tenderness that escapes many adults.

I was in Rome in 1994, when Detroit's Archbishop Adam Maida was made a cardinal. It was moving to see the pope embrace Maida's elderly mother and thank her for her son. John Paul's personal touch with people was seen in all his work.

His long papacy leaves profound marks on the church and the world, much of it good, but not all.

While he is usually considered a traditionalist, in many ways he bucked centuries of tradition in the church. The selection of bishops during his papacy has often been done based on a narrow theological litmus test -- with little or no local consultation, a tradition that goes back to the apostles. Too many bishops are ambitious careerists with limited pastoral and people skills.

Church authority has become increasingly centralized in the Vatican. We even have a situation where Poles, Germans and Italians are deciding the words Americans can use to pray in English.

Pope John Paul II was slow to act on the scandal of American priests involved in sexual abuse. The real scandal was the bishops who looked the other way and even tolerated the abuse.

One of the worst offenders was Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who should face criminal charges for his behavior in knowingly reassigning priest-predators who continued to abuse children. Law got booted from Boston, but he ended up in a cushy job in Rome with a substantial stipend. He actually sits on a board that selects bishops.

The scandal is a failure of bishops, and the bishop of Rome should have called it that.

The Vatican under John Paul and his right-hand man, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, conducted a series of witch-hunts to stifle and silence Catholic theologians. The inquires were often highhanded, unfair and petty.

Liberation theologians from Latin America were often targeted and their writings denounced as Marxist. Many church leaders had cozy relationships with oppressive military dictatorships in the region.

John Paul failed to recognize fully the role women could play in the church. He let Ratzinger declare the ban on ordaining woman was infallible -- a real stretch -- when he should have encouraged open discussion on the issue. Even without ordination, women could have been appointed to head high Vatican offices. They were not.

John Paul changed the church rules to require that cardinals had to be priests, missing the opportunity to appoint lay people as princes of the church and electors of the pope. John Paul changed another rule and required that the heads of male religious orders also had to be ordained. St. Francis of Assisi could not have led the Franciscans under that unnecessary requirement.

John Paul had a field day canonizing saints, more than any pope in history. Unfortunately, they were nearly all priests and nuns, and some of his selections were a bit odd. He declared Jose Maria Escriva a saint, but ignored Oscar Romero.

Escriva founded Opus Dei, a secretive, cult-like group in the church. Escriva was known to be ill-tempered and pompous, and liked to use titles of nobility. The Spanish priest, who died in 1975, was put on the fast track for canonization while the Vatican ignored his many critics.

Archbishop Romero was murdered by a right-wing death squad while saying Mass in his cathedral in El Salvador. He was a champion of the poor. He was arguably a more manifest martyr for the faith than Thomas Becket. Romero's canonization cause got nowhere.

John Paul embraced the dignity and seamless garment of life. He consistently opposed war, abortion and the death penalty. He reached out to the poor and condemned the exploitation of people in the southern hemisphere by richer and more powerful nations. He supported the Solidarity labor movement in his native Poland that ushered out Communism and ultimately led to the collapse of he Soviet Union and the liberation of oppressed people in Eastern and Central Europe.

He saw the Catholic Church as what the word truly means -- universal. His travels, especially to Africa and Asia, reflected his commitment to nurture faith to the ends of the earth.

He was a poet, philosopher, dramatist and visionary. We mourn his death, but celebrate his remarkable life. I'll always remember him as a charming, inquisitive man smiling over a glass of wine.

Bill Gallagher, a Peabody Award winner, is a former Niagara Falls city councilman who now covers Detroit for Fox2 News. His e-mail address is gallaghernewsman@sbcglobal.net.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 5 2005