“You of the press are important,” St. Pope John Paul II said shaking my left hand after Shepherd One, the papal jet, landed at the Los Angeles International Airport on the morning of Sept. 15, 1987. It was on a special tarmac at LAX away from where most commercial planes landed. There was an army of photographers and journalists along with dignitaries and some interlopers who had managed to get by security.
Showing up for The Tidings four hours before Shepherd One’s wheels creased the runway, I was determined to get a ringside seat for the Holy Father’s arrival in L.A. After all, my Minolta Maxxum camera only had a telephoto zoom lens that went up to 85 millimeters, which paled beside the long lenses of professional photographers from the Associated Press, national newspapers like The New York Times and magazines like Time and Newsweek.
I remember being embarrassed when these camera guys showed up a couple of hours before the event and set up their tripods. But I was determined to hold my spot by the waist-high metal barrier. And by the time Shepherd One stopped on the tarmac, its side door opened and stairs dropped, I was wedged in so tight I could barely raise my arms.
A red carpet was laid down and St. John Paul walked out smiling and waving to us. My plan was to take shots of him walking on the carpet to a cleared aisle some 30 yards to my right. With the Minolta Maxxum, it was the best I could do.
But then the pope veered off the carpet in our general direction. U.S. Secret Service men in dark suits and aviator glasses jumped to his side. And he just kept coming. I snapped a few photos, but then let the camera drop around my neck as he got closer. Then he was a step or two from the barrier. Two TV reporters stretched out their arms, but he had me in his sights, reaching out with his right hand to shake my left.
We made eye contact, and that’s when he said in his broken English, “You of the press are important.” I was tongue-tied and couldn’t form any words. The papal entourage around him and Secret Service agents moved him away from the barrier toward the aisle.
It took me a while to process what had just happened. Driving back to The Tidings’ office on 9th Street, I wondered if St. John Paul had actually shook my hand and said those six words: “You of the press are important.” But then a week later, I got an oversized letter in the mail with no return address. When I opened it, there it was — half a dozen colored prints of the pope looking right at me and shaking my hand.
I’ve never found out who took those pictures.