I was sitting at the front of a side aisle in Westminster Cathedral in May, 1982, as the service finished. Before I could leave Pope John Paul II had left his place at the front of the church and made his way to the section where a few of us representing the Press were seated.
He shook hands with us all. I was not a Roman Catholic but he impressed me with his peaceful confidence as he made his way round that section greeting people.
By the time I had left the church and reached my moped – by far the quickest way around London – my wife was getting a phone call from a friend asking if that was me on TV shaking hands with the Pope.
He wasn’t the first Pope I had met, however. That was some years previous when I was working as press officer for the Bible Society in London.
I was sent to Rome to get details of the launch of a modern version of the Bible – an Italian variation of the Good News Bible which had been launched some time before.
Introduced to a number of priests I was taken for a public audience with the Pope, then Paul VI. I watched in awe as he arrived in the packed audience chamber seating more than 6,000, carried aloft on a throne. And, as he welcomed different groups to the audience, I was amazed at how many stood on their seats to be greeted, waving yellow and white flags.
It was certainly not the solemn ceremony I had been expecting.
One of the priests also amazed me by getting my photographer friend and I an invitation to a wedding at which he was to present the bridal couple with one of the new Bibles during the service.
We got to the imposing San Gregorio Church a little early to be greeted by the Priest wearing paint-spattered clothing. “Just doing a bit of decorating,” he explained.
“But the wedding starts in a few minutes,” I pointed out.
“No problem,” was the response.
He ushered us into the church to a row of choir stalls alongside the altar. Leaving us there he disappeared through a door, returning what seemed like only seconds later wearing a glorious robe – covering all his working clothes.
And in the middle of the wedding ceremony he presented the couple with the Bible and then called the photographer to the front to take pictures with no one seeming to be a bit perturbed.
Afterwards the couple kindly invited us to the reception, an invitation we delicately declined.
When we returned to England I marshalled the photographs into a set to be used as a filmstrip illustrating the new Bible and its place in Rome’s history.
Unfortunately within a week or so Pope Paul VI had died and was relatively quickly followed by John Paul 1. We obtained pictures of the new Pope and had hardly finished remodelling the filmstrip when he died suddenly after a reign of only 33 days.
We then had to wait until Pope John Paul II was elected before finishing the project. Ironically Pope John Paul I had one of the shortest reigns while Pope John Paul II had one of the longest.
It was only a short time after shaking hands with Pope John Paul II that I was interviewing another international Christian leader – evangelist Dr Billy Graham.
Dr Graham was in London to prepare for another mission and did what he often did, invite a few journalists to his suite in a London hotel to talk over the state of the country. I was one of the journalists chosen.
It was not the first, or the last time I had interviewed Dr Graham. The first time was when I was covering his visit to Earl’s Court, London, in 1966 on the night when Cliff Richard was on stage to sing and announced that he had become a Christian.
The evangelist was often misunderstood, and could not quite understand the reaction to his preaching from critics. In his hotel room, with his wife, Ruth, Dr Graham told us we had been allowed half-a-hour with him because he had a chill and was under doctor’s orders to take it easy.
An hour later an aide slipped into the room and gently reminded him how long we had been there. “This isn’t work. I am enjoying myself,” was his reaction and chatted for another half an hour.
Like the Pope Dr Graham was always concerned about his lifestyle and appearance. “I am always afraid that I might do something that will dishonour the Lord or say something wrong . . . this has been a constant fear in my life. My life has to back up my preaching.”
Many of the church leaders I have been fortunate enough to interview over the years have followed that same, simple path.
Most have proved to be hospitable and friendly, like the night I got locked into Lambeth Palace, then the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Coggan.
I had been to a press conference and wanted to telephone my story to one of the national newspapers – before the days of mobiles and internet connections. I was allowed to use a phone in one of the side rooms. When I had finished I made my way down a passage to the large door through which I had entered the Palace and found it locked. Everyone had gone. I was wondering what to do when the Archbishop appeared, realised what had happened, laughed, and let me leave.
If that was embarrassing, my visit to see the then Chief Rabbi of Britain, Immanuel Jakobovits – later made Baron Jakobovits – also had a funny side to it.
As I entered the building in central London in which his office was placed, along with the Jewish Museum, two guards on duty who asked me to open my bag. On the way to the interview, however, I had stopped at my favourite shop in the city, a magic shop, and bought a new trick, a box which the audience saw as empty and from which the magician then produced any amount of items.
One of the guards, a lady, opened my bag and was immediately struck by the box.
“What is this?” she asked.
I explained how it worked and her mouth dropped.
“Wow,” she said. “I have always wondered how they did it,” and made me a welcome visitor. I doubt the Magic Circle would have approved of me, however.
I was also sent on one occasion to the home of Bishop Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, then Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, shortly before he was elevated to the position of the tenth Archbishop of Westminster, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. Despite a wet and windy ride on my moped from Croydon I got a warm welcome in his home.
Some leading churchmen I still count as friends. The Rev David Coffey, for instance, was the President of the Baptist Union, and we worked in the same building in London for some time when I was features editor for the Baptist Times.
It was he who influenced my move from London to Oxford when the Baptist Union, the Baptist Missionary Society, and the attached groups, moved from London to Didcot. It was a move I never regretted.
Also on the Non-conformist side I enjoyed meeting the late Dr Donald English, former President of the Methodist Church and Moderator of the Free Church Federal Council.
When my late father retired after 70 years as a lay preacher he somehow slipped through the official net and seemed to get no recognition. I sent a note to Dr English who wrote a kind letter to my father thanking him for all his service.
My Dad, bless him, told me: “He’s only done that because you asked him.” But I note that he kept the letter.
The Free Church side of my life would not be complete without a mention of my interview with Commissioner Catherine Bramwell-Booth, granddaughter of the Salvation Army’s founder, General William Booth. She lived to 104 – but was 97 when I passed the painted bass drum in the hallway of her Surrey home and entered the old English lounge to chat.
She was full of life, as Michael Parkinson had found out when he interviewed her on his TV show. During the interview he commented: “I bet ….” to which she responded: “Surely you don’t bet, Mr Parkinson?”
Like all leaders, religious or otherwise, she was an ordinary person, thrust into an extraordinary life-style, but she lived in with charm and a fierce determination to help those in need. In the entrance lobby to the house where she lived with two sisters was a big drum, standing alongside a Salvation Army flag and a bust of her father, General Bramwell Booth, alongside a plaque which had adorned the house as long as the 97-year old Commissioner could remember. It said: As for me and my house we will serve the Lord.” She did.
Meeting these folk makes you realise that not all have been born with a silver spoon but all had an encounter with God that turned their lives around and made them think and act for others.
If religion means anything it is simply that – making time for other people. When the Pope shook my hand it was one man greeting another. The world can only improve if more people would make that their rule in life.