The 24/7 news coverage of Pope Francis got me wondering about all things pope-related.
In particular, Austin lobbyist Bill Miller is the only person I know who has helped arrange a private audience with a pope, but I had never heard the story of how Miller got then-Speaker Tom Craddick and an entourage of Texans in to see Pope John Paul II.
Being steeped in Texas politics, I assumed you wrote a big check and made a reservation.
It’s not quite that straightforward.
In this case, Miller says the 2004 trip to the Vatican involved connections, serendipity and, yes, faith. There was no guarantee the meeting would occur even after the group arrived in Rome to wait three days hoping to “get the call.”
It was a bit nerve-wrecking for Miller as he flew overseas with Craddick and his family as well as Rep. Beverly Woolley and her husband, all devout Catholics with their hands firmly on the levers of power back in Austin.
There was a real possibility the private audience might not occur.
“All I could keep turning over in my head, ‘I’m flying back with these guys. I’m going to hear so much crap about, ‘Wow, that was a great trip, Bill,’” says Miller, laughing now at the memory.
For those who don’t remember, Craddick — a Midland Republican elected speaker in 2003 — was considered the most powerful state official in Austin. Woolley, R-Houston, led the House Calendars Committee that controlled the flow of legislation.
Miller, a Capitol fixture since the 1980s, is a spokesman, crisis manager and lobbyist who was already firmly in Craddick’s camp as a friend and ally. But delivering a private audience with the pope is a rare achievement in the world of Texas lobbyists plying their favors with elected officials.
He got the opportunity because of a client.
Richard Krzyzanowski was a lawyer for Crown Cork & Seal Co., a packaging company that invented the bottle cap but was also involved in asbestos litigation because of an unrelated business it had acquired.
In the fall of 2003, Miller says, Krzyzanowski called, asking whether Craddick might be interested in meeting the pope.
Krzyzanowski served on the Pope John Paul II Foundation and shared the pope’s Polish roots. He explained that the pope would be “in residence” at the Vatican in January because of a ceremony promoting a cardinal.
Despite his connections, Krzyzanowski warned that a private audience was far from a sure thing.
“‘You can be there and it just won’t happen,’” Miller recalls Krzyzanowski telling him. “‘You don’t get the call. You don’t get the meeting. There’s not like an excuse. There’s not a schedule.’”
Still, Krzyzanowski thought it was worth taking a chance.
“You’re not taking the chance,” Miller recalls responding. “I am.”
Craddick, who had been to the Vatican three times but had never met the pope, was a bit mystified about flying to Rome “on a hunch.”
“It’s stronger than a hunch,” Miller recalls saying, “but it’s a ‘trust me’ deal.”
With that, Miller began making arrangements.
“If they don’t get to see the pope, I’m at least going to try and turn it into a great trip,” Miller says. “I learned there’s a guy you can hire in Rome that the big shots hire who really knows how to open doors and get things done.”
He delivered, whisking the group around Rome in a fleet of Mercedes, to VIP opportunities.
Miller’s group toured the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum after hours, away from the crowds, and was escorted to where St. Peter’s Tomb was being excavated at the time.
They were even admitted to the pope’s dressing room full of robes and shoes.
“It’s like being in your closet,” Miller says. “It’s a good as it gets.”
But the call hadn’t come. The prospect of disappointing the group was becoming palatable.
“Seeing his slippers is not seeing the man,” Miller says.
Finally, Krzyzanowski called with a time and place.
The group was escorted to wait outside the pope’s private library.
“Suddenly the doors open,” Miller says. “There he sits in the middle of the room.”
Each person kisses the pope’s ring and receives a blessing in Latin.
The pope, already in decline and in pain, was barely audible to Miller.
“It was never about hearing the words,” says Miller, who’s not Catholic. “It was looking him in the eye, being right in front of him, six inches from his face, and looking into his eyes.”
Miller, rightfully a bit of a cynic after decades at the Capitol, says he was moved.
“The vibe I got from John Paul II was saintly, as saintly as any I have ever received from any person,” Miller says. “If he’s not a saint, he’s pretty darn close because of what I just felt from him.”
Photos were taken. A couple more minutes of small talk and it was over.
Back in Austin, Miller was greeted by his competitors and colleagues with a mixture of envy and teasing.
“I had to hear every pope joke in the world,” Miller says.
As for the rarity of the event, Miller says, “I tell you this, I don’t want to try and top it.”