VATICAN CITY — One of the most curious tributes in the run-up to Pope John Paul II’s beatification came from Mexico, where church officials recalled the late pope’s love for mangos.
During his first trip to Mexico in 1979, the pope enthused about the Latin American fruit, and his Mexican hosts began preparing dishes that used the mango in every possible way. Afterward, they regularly sent boxes of mangos to the Vatican so there would always be some on the pope’s table.
Even when Pope John Paul was very ill toward the end of his life, the late Cardinal Ernesto Corripio Ahumada of Mexico City sent him mangos — and called the deputy secretary of state to make sure the pope had received them.
The story, recounted by the Vatican missionary news agency Fides April 28, may seem marginal, but it offers insight into the ways Pope John Paul connected with people of every place and culture. His spiritual intensity may have made him a saint, but his humanity made him a saint they could relate to.
Throughout his 26-year pontificate, Pope John Paul paid attention not only to world leaders but also to the “little people” and what was on their minds. On his journeys outside the Vatican, he would chat with workers, visit the sick and make pilgrimage to even the most humble of local shrines.
More than once, he stepped off the official papal motorcade route to drop in on families in Africa and Latin America. He sipped tea in their huts, and once, after visiting a Brazilian shantytown, he took off his papal ring and left it to be sold for the benefit of the local residents.
He opened a hostel for the poor inside the Vatican, and personally hosted the homeless for holiday dinners. In Rome, he visited the most out-of-the-way parishes and spent the better part of his Sundays with parishioners.
Everywhere he went, Pope John Paul seemed to imbibe the local culture and embrace its expressions. He did this in the simplest of gestures: donning a tribal headdress in Kenya, swinging a hockey stick in St. Louis or drinking a pepper-root brew from a coconut shell in Fiji.
He did it through words, routinely taking language lessons before his travels. In Tanzania in 1990, thanks to a cassette tape he dutifully toted en route, he was able to charm and amaze his listeners in near-perfect Swahili.
During public ceremonies, Pope John Paul put people at their ease, often with a sense of humor. When he held hands and danced onstage with young people in Australia in 1986, one of the girls began to cry. The smiling pope hugged her and said simply, “Don’t worry.”
Carl Anderson, the supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, was impressed with the way Pope John Paul patiently greeted the sick and disabled at his public events, chatting with them one by one and blessing them. He was not going through the motions; he was interested in them.
“These were small actions that were not necessary and not expected. It was something he was doing that was different, personal and made that person feel very special with the encounter,” Anderson said.
The late pope routinely went outside the traditional boundaries of the papacy, in things big and small. He was the first modern pope to visit a synagogue, a fact that’s remembered with affection by the Jews in Rome’s ancient “ghetto” neighborhood. Many of them keep a photo of the Polish pope in their shops.
One of his favorite Christmas meetings was with Rome’s garbage collectors and street sweepers, who would welcome him to their nativity scene near the Vatican. He never gave a speech, and instead joked with them about getting direct orders from God not to skip their annual encounter.
Pope John Paul was, of course, serious about evangelizing. But he seemed to recognize that evangelization was easier after building bridges with people in every walk of life. Sometimes he did it by giving a speech. And sometimes he did it by slipping on a rock star’s sunglasses, or savoring a mango.