National Catholic Register

Inperson

Dining With — and Filming — Pope John Paul II

BY TIM DRAKE

July 23 - August 5, 2006 Issue | Posted 7/23/06 at 9:00 AM

 

Alberto Michelini has had some of the most interesting lunch conversations.

It’s no wonder: He dined many times with Pope John Paul II, and has the film to prove it.

The Italian television reporter also has served as a member of the European Parliament and the Italian Parliament as Italy’s envoy to Africa.

But Michelini is also a filmmaker. Earlier this month, he released Credo — John Paul II. The film, premiere by New York’s Follieri Foundation, features the singing voice of Andrea Bocelli. Michelini spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake while visiting New York for the film’s U.S. premiere June 10.

Tell me about your family.

My father worked in the Vatican state for 40 years. He worked in the palace of the governor, in the Vatican museum and for Vatican radio. My mother was a homemaker. I am one of three children. I have a brother who is a composer and director of an orchestra. My sister is a doctor.

In 1979, you accompanied Pope John Paul II on his first trip to Poland. I understand that because of that trip you missed the birth of your twin son and daughter.

During that trip, in June 1979, while I was in Czestochowa, my wife gave birth to our twins. The Holy Father was informed of their birth.

When he saw me he asked, “So, are they born?”

I replied, “Yes, Holy Father.”

He asked, “Are they good?”

I said, “I hope so, Holy Father.”

Then he said that they needed to be baptized. One month later, in a very secret ceremony, there was this beautiful occasion to share with the Pope, my parents and my wife’s parents. Our twins were the first children baptized by Pope John Paul II.

The situation was providential.

Also at that time, my wife, who was German and Protestant, came into the Church. At the time, she had been studying and reading the Catechism and the Gospels. She was preparing herself.

She made her profession of faith in the hands of the Pope, was confirmed and received first Communion.

You traveled with Pope John Paul II more than 30 times and frequently had meals with him. Is there a particular meeting that you remember?

In general, especially during the first 10-15 years, I had many occasions to be very close to Pope John Paul II. I was alone with him twice and was invited to breakfast, lunch or dinner. He liked to invite people just to speak about the many issues in society, young people, the Church, and situations in the countries.

He was always so interested in speaking with people.

I often brought friends or political entourages to meet the Pope. Because of my closeness, many friends asked to be invited. One of these occasions was May 13, 1981, the day of the assassination attempt.

The day before, I had invited a close friend, Dr. Jerome Lejeune, to attend a conference against abortion. On May 17, the Italian government was going to vote for or against abortion, so I had asked Dr. Lejeune to attend a conference with me on May 12. Dr. Lejeune was in the Academy of Sciences and knew the Pope, but not well. He told me he would come if he could see the Pope.

I asked the Pope’s secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz, and he told me to bring Dr. Lejeune to lunch. Dr. Lejeune, his wife, and I went, and it was a very interesting meeting. The Pope told us that he was very disappointed with the attitude of silence on the part of the Italian bishops on abortion.

Afterward, Dr. Lejeune went directly to Paris. I went to a meeting with a group of parents about a private school we were organizing in Rome.

At 5:35 p.m. someone called me to the school. A mother had been watching the television and told me that the Pope had been shot. I replied that this was impossible, as I had left him in his apartment only two hours earlier.

I left immediately and went to the hospital, where I stayed for 15 days to report the news.

I told myself as I was driving to the hospital, “This is impossible that we are without this Pope.” When I spoke with Stanislaw Dziwisz and read what the Pope said during his transportation, it was clear that he too felt he would come out alive.

How did you decide to create the documentary Credo?

In 2000, Andrea Bocelli sang 16 sacred songs, including the Jubilee Year song, the “Ave Maria” and “Panis Angelicus.” I helped the company to produce a video that included images of the pontificate with four of these sacred songs. That was one of my videos — just images and music. When the Pope died, the manager called me. She had been impressed that 3 million people would go to the basilica and wait 20 hours to see the body of the Pope for just a few seconds. She wondered if we could use music and images from that time.

We combined Bocelli’s music with images from Pope John Paul II’s pontificate, including footage I had shot while in the Vatican. We tried to link the images to the songs and the result was very impressive and moving. It has been presented in Rome, and on every occasion it brings tears to people’s eyes. We had a screening at the actor’s chapel in St. Malachy’s Catholic Church in New York on July 10. The film is being distributed in the U.S. by Warner.

You were given unrestricted access to the Vatican archives for the documentary. Was there anything you learned about Pope John Paul II that you hadn’t known before?

Since 1977, I have lived my faith through Opus Dei. In Opus Dei, one of the strong points of the spiritual life is sanctity in work. You sanctify yourself and others through work.

Through living every day — the Mass, the Rosary, the Gospel, meditations — you become more effective in action. To be contemplative and at the same time live in the middle of society are two faces of the same medal.

I have seen in Pope John Paul II this way to be contemplative.

I was always very moved seeing him praying everywhere in this very strong way. If, for instance, he was with several million people and a bishop or cardinal was speaking, he was there with closed eyes and you could see that his mouth was praying. I was always very impressed by this attitude.

At the same time, he would speak very strongly against injustice. I remember after the collapse of Poland, he said he felt like Moses with the Ten Commandments. He passed through 10 different Polish cities speaking in each city about one Commandment. He told the people, “We worked together. We reached freedom and now you are spending your freedom in the worst way, through immorality.”

He also had a sense of humor. The eyes of the Pope were very special. He had a way of watching that was incredible.

They could be very sweet like those of a mother and like those of a father at the same time. The impression I have had in this year is that he was like a medium touching heaven. He was there, but at the same time he was at another place. He was a man of God.

Have you met Pope Benedict XVI?

Yes, I know him. He knows me. We had a long interview for a private television station in 1998-1999. I met him about two months ago and he asked me what I was doing. When he learned that I was working for Africa he said, “Go ahead. Africa is important and you Italians have much you can do because you are closer.”

I was very pleased that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope because he represents continuity, is a good person, and a theologian. He was the first collaborator of Pope John Paul II. It was my hope that he would be chosen.

Tim Drake writes from
St. Joseph, Minnesota.