Reporters Get a Close-up View of Pope

Holy Fathers Bounces Back After Grueling Trip

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VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 28, 2001 ( The reporters who were flying back to Rome with John Paul II after his six-day trip to Kazakhstan and Armenia received a special treat at midnight Thursday, the New York Times reported.

Vatican officials suddenly invited the 60 reporters on board the airliner to file one by one to the front of the plane, sit next to the Pope for a minute, say hello and have a photo taken.

The invitation was extraordinary, the Times said, and it gave many reporters who had been covering the Pope for years their first chance to shake his hand.

It was a surprise end to a grueling trip. The Holy Father had flown to Kazakhstan, attended five to seven events each day and gave remarks in four languages. The 81-year-old Pontiff walked and talked with difficulty at times. But he refused to cut back at a moment when he felt that his message of tolerance was needed more than ever.

Then, during a nationally televised address in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, he got only as far as saying, «Thank you for welcoming me to your home,» when he slumped in his chair and had to stop.

He tried to collect himself, but finally allowed an Armenian priest to take the text and deliver the bulk of the remarks. The Vatican said the handoff was planned. The Times noted that the Pontiff usually only turns over speeches in languages he does not speak, which was not the case in the address he had been giving in English.

Only a few hours later, after some rest, he entered another event walking so well that he waved his cane playfully in the air, the Times reported.

At one point in the week, when the Holy Father seemed particularly stooped and labored in his movements, his chief spokesman, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, was asked delicately, in Italian, if the Pope did not seem «stanchissimo,» tired in the extreme. «It´s possible,» was Navarro-Valls´ response.

On Thursday night, however, reporters found John Paul II smiling and switching languages easily every few seconds — from French to English, Spanish and Italian — while greeting reporters, the Times said.

On his flight from Kazakhstan to Armenia, the Pope was well-briefed, friendly and even affectionate — fixing his blue eyes and holding a reporter´s hands in his as he spoke and bestowed his blessings, the Times said.

The paper noted that, at least for that moment, he managed to seem less «stanchissimo» than his aides, some of whom were dozing nearby.

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