“Thirty-nine years ago today I was on my way into St. Peter’s Square when the pope was shot,” Joan Lewis said over the phone on May 13.
It is just one of many vivid memories Lewis has of the 65 years of her life that overlapped with St. John Paul II’s, including four decades in Rome, where she closely followed the pope as a journalist and later as a Vatican translator who worked on an apostolic exhortation and the pope’s last will and testament.
Today the energetic 79-year-old Vatican journalist has spent the past few months in isolation in her apartment during Italy’s coronavirus lockdown.
Ahead of the 100th anniversary of St. John Paul II’s birth on May 18, Lewis affectionately recalled her memories of the Polish pope with a sweet tooth during a quarantine phone conversation.
“One day … I read that he loved chocolate,” she said. “I am a chocoholic, and so I thought, ‘Gee, I wonder if he might like some brownies or chocolate chip cookies?’”
“My dad’s motto was: ‘Don't be backward in coming forward,’” she said. “So, using that to my advantage, I made about two dozen brownies, about three or four dozen chocolate chip cookies, and I called Mgsr. Stanisław, and I said: ‘I have something for the Holy Father.’”
“I didn’t tell him what it was," Lewis added with a laugh.
Msgr. Stanisław Dziwisz, now a cardinal, was the long-time personal secretary of John Paul II, working with him since Karol Wojtyla was Archbishop of Kraków.
Lewis arranged a time to meet Dziwisz -- explaining that what she had to give to the pope could not be trusted to be left with the Swiss Guards. The next day she received a thank you note.
This became a regular habit for the American at the Vatican. Every few months she would bake a sweet treat for the pope.
But word spread fast in the world’s smallest country, and soon she was baking cookies for the Vatican gendarmes, Vatican personnel office, and the nuns who worked the switchboard.
“Did I tell you with that last bunch how much the Holy Father loves your cookies?” she said Dziwisz once told her. Lewis cherishes that memory.
“People could really relate to this man,” she said. “That was the most wonderful thing about him.”
“He loved family. He loved kids. He loved different cultures. He loved skiing. He loved swimming. People could just relate to him. He was just so human and warm. I always loved his smile. His eyes seemed to twinkle so much.”
Lewis is quick to point out that covering the Vatican as a journalist 40 years ago was not like the “time of the media that we have today.”
“There were no cell phones like we have now to take pictures or record things,” she said.
One spring day in 1981, Lewis was standing outside of the Holy See press office on her way to pick up a printed bulletin.
“Ten seconds later I hear someone scream in Italian: ‘They have shot the pope!’” she said.
“That was a time when I think I experienced paralysis because my brain could not process those words,” she said. “I ran into the square and in any language I knew I asked people, groups what they saw, what they heard.”
Lewis found out that two American women had also been injured in the assassination attempt on the pope. Later, she went to visit one of the women in the hospital and eventually attended the trial of the assassin, Mehmet Ali Ağca, in Rome.
On the day of the shooting, she recalled: “We didn't move from the press office until it was about 1:30 in the morning because none of us could write the last line on our news story until we knew if John Paul had survived surgery or not.”
At the time that John Paul II was shot, “he had only been pope for a couple of years,” she said.
Lewis was in Cairo, Egypt, working on a project for a few months with the former New York Times bureau chief Christopher Wren in 1978 when John Paul II was elected pope.
She was staying in an apartment overlooking the Nile with a family friend when they heard a news report on the radio that the pope had died.
“We were going, ‘Oh my gosh, they are really behind on this,’” she said. “We thought that they were speaking of Paul VI.” Pope Paul VI had died the month before.
“But no! It was John Paul I, so then of course we riveted,” she said.
“We were listening to the radio on October 16, 1978 at a little after seven at night, the BBC news. We heard ‘Habemus papam,’ and it was a long, drawn-out name.”
“They looked at me and said, ‘Where in Italy is he from?’” she recalled. “I said, ‘I don't know that name.’ Then we heard he was Polish and we all dropped our forks, you know.”
Some of Lewis’ favorite memories of John Paul II are from the times she attended Mass in his private chapel.
“I have never seen anyone pray like John Paul did in my whole life,” she said.
She also met the pope as a part of the papal party for World Youth Day in Denver in 1993.
"I always loved his talks to young people,” she said. "Whenever his speeches, homilies, whatever came to my desk where it was the Holy Father addressing young people ... I wanted to be the one to write it.”
Working at the Vatican from 1990 to 2005, Lewis served as part of the Holy See delegations to international conferences, including the United Nations Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, and other conferences in Copenhagen, Istanbul, and Beijing.
She said that the pope's message for the delegates was "always to put the human being at the center of every single thing, and to protect and to defend life, to protect and defend human freedom.”
“I remember him saying very clearly to the delegation before we left. He said: ‘I want you to know ... you can count on my prayers every day.’ He told us that he knew these conferences would be an uphill battle and said ‘I’m just a phone call away if you ever need me.’”
Lewis’ work for the Vatican also included translation. She remembers translating parts of Pastores dabo vobis, the pope’s 1992 post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the formation of priests, into English.
“I personally translated the Holy Father’s last will and testament,” she said, recalling that she was sitting at her desk in tears at the time.
When the pope died, Lewis said it felt like she had just lost her father a second time. Her dad had died 13 years earlier.
“All across St. Peter's Square there were 50-60,000 just all over the place praying rosaries, singing songs, burning candles, especially young people,” she recalled of the days leading up to his death.
“He had died at 9:37, so we finished our news ... and then I went out into St. Peter’s Square and finally the emotions got a hold of me, and I sobbed for 45 minutes,” she said.
“I loved every person in that square because they were paying tribute to the man I loved, this huge spiritual father.”
Fifteen years later, Lewis said that she hopes she will be able to visit St. John Paul II’s tomb in St. Peter’s Basilica on the centenary of his birth. The basilica has been closed to the public for the past nine weeks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. In recent weeks, the Italian government has slowly loosened its restrictions and will allow public Masses to resume on May 18, St. John Paul II’s birthday.
Lewis, who turns 80 next month, said that she has missed seeing friends, going to restaurants, stopping by the EWTN office, and going to the hairdresser during the lockdown.
But this has not stopped her from contributing to her parish's weekly Mass livestream as a long-distance lector, writing posts for her blog, and recording her weekly radio show.
The weeks under quarantine have also given her some time to work on a book about her memories of St. John Paul II. She says it will be called “I baked cookies for a saint.”
“I feel enormously blessed that my life was touched by this man's life,” Lewis said.