Close encounters with the popes over 3 decades

8:27 AM, Feb 26, 2013   |    comments
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VATICAN CITY (AP) - The Middle East Airlines jetliner had barely taken off from Beirut when I was escorted down the aisle to the first-class section and seated beside Pope Benedict XVI. He had just ended a delicate two-day visit to Lebanon as civil war raged in neighboring Syria, and he looked and sounded weary.

It was my 92nd trip aboard a papal plane - first with the master of papal globetrotting John Paul II, then over the past eight years with Benedict.

As I was planning to retire, the pope's journey in September was to be my last, and Vatican officials thought I should share the moment with him.

I sat beside the pope and shook his hand. "Congratulations on your retirement," he said in Italian as a Vatican photographer recorded the occasion. Speaking in a soft voice, he asked me how many years I had been covering the Vatican. When I told him more than 30, he looked surprised and said my retirement "is much-deserved." Did his thoughts drift to important plans of his own that he was concealing from the world?

There's no way to tell.

But Benedict appeared pleased with our conversation and in no rush to end it. It was his aides who motioned to me that it was time to return to my seat.

The encounter did not prepare me for his stunning announcement five months later that he planned to retire on Feb. 28 - the exact date I had chosen to retire myself.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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