Posted: April 7, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

When John Paul II first stood on the balcony as pope in 1978, CNN did not exist to broadcast it, and hardly anyone could send a fax about it, but there was one thing in this ever-changing world that has remained constant since then.

Joseph R. Biden Jr. was a U.S. senator from Delaware. In fact, he was weeks away from being elected to a second term.

The unknowable current of events has brought Biden and Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, two of the highest-ranking officials the state has, to Rome on Thursday, the day before the pope's funeral that is expected to be the biggest single event in history.

Once upon a time, when Delaware was celebrating its bicentennial as the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution in 1787, Wilmington lawyer David S. Swayze whimsically suggested that all 600,000 or so residents ought to congregate en masse at Dover Air Force Base and sing "Happy Birthday" to themselves.

A gathering like that would be lost in the sea of millions expected to pay their last respects to John Paul.

Biden is in Rome purposely because of the pope, Minner because of an accident of timing, one that in fact seems to have deprived her of a papal audience.

Biden, a six-term Democrat, has the stature and longevity in the Senate, where he is the ranking minority member on the Foreign Relations Committee, to be part of a 13-member senatorial delegation going to the funeral.

Minner, a two-term Democrat, is leading a state delegation that is on the back end of a long-scheduled trade mission to Germany and Italy. She was accompanied by four legislators -- Democratic Sen. Harris B. McDowell III and Rep. Peter C. Schwartzkopf and Republican Reps. Joseph G. DiPinto and Stephanie A. Ulbrich -- and some business leaders.

Minner and Biden held back-to-back conference calls Thursday afternoon local time, Thursday evening Rome time, with reporters from home, and both of them sounded swept up by what they were experiencing.

"It is history in the making. There are a lot of people with heavy hearts at the loss of their pope," Minner said.

"The pope was clearly one of the most influential people in the last half of the 20th Century," Biden said. "Ideas matter, and one man's conviction can be contagious."

Minner was calling from her hotel room, but Biden was on a cell phone in front of the Vatican, looking at what he said were tens of thousands of people of all ages and from all over the world, Polish flags waving among them for the pope from Poland, people who were well off and people who were beggars.

"It kind of represents all that he touched," Biden said. "It is not a somber mood, as in people crying, but it's not a festive mood."

Biden had just come from viewing John Paul lying in state. "He looked quiet, almost saintly, lying there. There was both the grandeur of it and the sadness of it," he said.

Biden met John Paul four times, mostly on papal visits to the United States, but also in a private session at the Vatican in 1980, when the pope wanted to talk to him about Poland and the future of the Soviet Union. Both of them presciently were anticipating its collapse.

Minner and her delegation had plans to meet with the pope and tour the Vatican, but they were overtaken by events. They did happen to be invited to the Italian parliament when it held its memorial service.

Minner and Biden both talked about seeing cardinals wherever they went. Minner and her group were getting around in a small bus, Biden and the other senators in three mini-buses provided by the U.S. Embassy. Minner said the traffic resembled the crawl of Wilmington's rush hour.

Minner will be departing by the time of the funeral. Biden will be there. He said he found himself reflecting on the vigorous, athletic pope he met in the Vatican library 25 years ago.

"My God," Biden said. "Has that much time passed?"