Memories of Two 'Great Communicators'

VATICAN CITY — Marjorie Weeke, a retired official with the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Social Communications, was honored recently with the Daniel J. Kane Religious Communication Award from the University of Dayton, Ohio.

Weeke, a native of Whittier, Calif., who retired in 2001, reminisced recently with Register correspondent Edward Pentin about Pope John Paul II's meetings with Ronald Reagan as well as other highlights of her days working at the Vatican.

Through your work you've gotten to know Pope John Paul II quite well.

It's very hard for anyone who works for him to say you know him quite well, as it sounds arrogant and people say, “Oh yes, he's my friend.” I was always there — like the wallpaper. I didn't go on the plane; that wasn't my job — that was the press office.

But anytime there was a special audience, I would have to organize the pool for the press, pick them out, take them and get them back. It wasn't always just the Vatican press people; you'd have the people from the country, and to do that you had to bring them in ahead of time and tell them what was going to happen because some of them were scared to death — they'd never been to the Vatican before, especially the Muslim who wondered what would happen to him. So we would manage meetings and plan how it would go.

When you have a big meeting like a presidential one, then it's a question of an advance visit, the day before, and those are very complicated and usually they're live on television.

Once when I was in with President Ronald Reagan, he was very jovial and relaxed and we had all the big guns, the White House press — a certain number of them are allowed in; we keep the numbers down as much as possible. The Vatican press office would pick the journalist and at that time pick the photographers — they usually have one American TV network pooling for the others.

How did you find the chemistry between the Pope and Reagan?

Very nice, very nice. Of course, the Pope was younger then. But it was great with Nancy Reagan. All of the entourage were in veils and looking very elegant. And I still remember thinking that everything was going just fine, the photographers aren't trying to move into the wrong place.

The Pope and Reagan, when he was alive, have been great communicators, haven't they?

Oh yes, they both had this instinct to be very relaxed. Reagan was very afraid of still cameras because he said they can make you look awful, but TV cameras didn't matter because he'd been in movies all the time.

Reagan didn't mind who shot the cameras; he was just himself, he never really posed for the camera unless he had to, shaking hands — grips and grins as it's called. So there was great chemistry between them.

Then afterward there was always a meeting with the American community in Rome and the seminarians who would be waiting for the president, saying, “God bless America.” The Pope would always go with the president into that, too, and have a high old time. He did the same with President Bill Clinton; it was part of the protocol. So it was quite exciting in those days.

The Pope has a very great affection for the United States, doesn't he?

I think he does. He has two American secretaries, he's always tried to have someone around him who's known about the United States. [Former papal secretary] Father John Magee was Irish but very pro-American, and the Pope could speak English at lunch and he could work on it, but now he doesn't have anyone to do that.

Before he always made sure he had someone. Because he visited America as a cardinal, you know, and went all over the states — Detroit, lots of places where there are Poles. Somebody wrote about it saying, “Oh yes, there's some unimportant Polish cardinal coming, and I guess I've got to help him” — had he only known!

He seems to still be very warm to America despite recent differences.

Oh yes, he likes America, because he always goes up to people and says, “Oh American!” and looks at them, and they say, “Yes, we're American.” And he says, “Good, God bless America.”

Part of the reason for his affection for America is that it cherishes freedom, isn't it?

Yes, and America took care of a lot of Poles — look at the number of Poles in Chicago and Michigan.

You've called John Paul “very kind and very simple.”

Yes, he is, and very easy — I've never seen him flustered. He doesn't worry about somebody being late.

Everyone else is going mad, like the King of Morocco who came late, which is very bad protocol. But he says, you know, it's okay.

You'd think he'd be nervous — I've never seen him nervous. He might have something on his mind and be preoccupied but it doesn't show. And he's very observant, sees everything in the news.

Do you think refraining from giving interviews maintains a kind of mystique about the papacy?

I think so, or it becomes commonplace. The Pope said once, “I'm not a media star.” They think he is, but he said, “That's not what I do.” He said if he does something in public, then “they're all welcome to come, but not my private life.” He just drew the line over it. In fact, in his private chapel you'd never get a television camera.

He's a very private person?

Very much. He can be dramatic when he wants, but no, this part of himself is so private. Sometimes at a ceremony in St Peter's he'd come down and change in the crypt and suddenly turn around, go to the altar and begin praying. And we all just stood and waited, maybe 10 or 20 minutes. But it didn't matter; we weren't there.

But I like that — it's “first of all I'm Pope, that's what I do.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.