In the spring of 2000, four couples, including my wife and I, were trying to decide on a holiday destination. After a lot of discussions, we finally narrowed it down to a combo trip – Jordan with Greece or Italy. But one couple had already been to Italy so that almost ruled it out. Two of the other couples were Catholic and one of them insisted on going to Italy because they had a long-cherished dream of seeing the Vatican and the Pope.
Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t work out a compromise and the majority seemed to favour Greece. Finally, the couple decided to drop out of our plans and make their own plans to go to Italy, if possible. Our group always did things together, so all of us were quite disappointed and sad.
Nonetheless, we three couples set out on our trip, visiting Greece first and then going on to Jordan. Both trips went very well and we covered a lot of places. We had engaged a private van with a driver in Jordan and were able to cover the most important sites at leisure without the timing restrictions of a conducted tour.
On the last day of our trip after another early start, we were driving back to Amman sometime in the evening when we ran into a traffic jam close to the city. The traffic crawled along for a few miles and then came to a standstill at some point. We had been to Mount Nebo just the previous day and had spent hours soaking in the salty water of the Dead Sea. We were all quite tired out by our schedule over the last few days so we took the opportunity to sit in the van and doze. But the long delay finally made us restless.
My wife, I and the Catholic couple got off the car to stretch our legs. We walked ahead to try and find out what was holding up traffic. A short distance away, we came to a sort of intersection near a bridge which seemed to be the focal point of the traffic jam. Vehicular traffic had been stopped in all directions and a few soldiers were stationed on the bridge and along the ramp coming down. There were a handful of people there too talking to one of the soldiers. We joined the group with the hope of understanding what was going on. The soldier talking to the group was quite chatty, it seemed, as his answers in Arabic were quite long. There was some directional gesturing going on, and we gathered that some VIP was going to come over the bridge and down the ramp. We were hoping it would be King Abdullah or some such luminary.
We had learnt a few phrases in Arabic during our stay in Saudi Arabia and one of us asked the soldier who was coming in halting Arabic. He looked us up and down and to our pleasant surprise, asked in good English “Are you Indians?” He seemed so happy to hear that we were and told us that his brother was in India, studying in Pune, and how it was going and all that. We were also very pleased and listened to him gladly. Finally, he paused for a minute and we butted in with our question again “Who is coming here today?”
“Oh!” he said, quite matter of factly. “It is Pope John Paul. He is coming from Mount Nebo.”
We didn’t even have time to be stunned. Within moments, there was a flurry of activity as the soldier threw away his cigarette and came to attention. We could see the top of the convoy vehicles on the bridge driving slowly as they approached the ramp. A couple of police jeeps and then the Popemobile turned to come down the ramp.
My wife and I had studied in Catholic schools. The other couple was Catholic anyway. All four of us had automatically raised our folded hands above our heads in typical Indian fashion, tears streaming down our cheeks, sobbing uncontrollably as the Pope came down the ramp. He raised his hand in benediction and gently waved at us from his glass cubicle as his vehicle passed us slowly less than 15 feet away.
More than two decades later, it is like it is happening in front of me again as I write this and tears gather threateningly at the edge of my eyes. It was like a miracle – going from Saudi Arabia to Jordan, quite deliberately leaving out Italy and seeing the Pope so closely like no Vatican visit would ever have allowed us to. But even in all the emotion churning in my head and heart, the incongruousness of seeing a harmless frail old man of the cloth in a glass cage was not lost on me, then or now. We live in that kind of world.
It was difficult describing what we saw to the two couples – one who had dozed through a miracle and the other who’d chosen to stay behind in Saudi Arabia. We had to convince them first, it was so unbelievable.
When the time is right, He comes to us even when we don’t go to Him. What else can I say?