SALEM — The canonization tomorrow of Pope John Paul II is personal for retired Judge Thaddeus Buczko. He knew the pope.
“I had the pope’s phone number at home,” said Buczko, 88, a retired probate court judge.
Buczko, a longtime Salem resident, not only knew John Paul II, a Polish native and the first non-Italian pope in more than 400 years, but developed a friendship over several decades.
Buczko first met the pope when he was a bishop in Poland, hosted him at a Boston dinner when he was Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, and saw him on several occasions in Rome during his papacy, which ran from 1978 to his death in 2005.
As state auditor from 1964-81, Buczko was for many years the state’s highest-ranking elected official of Polish descent. He is a former state commander of the Polish Legion of American Veterans and a frequent speaker before Polish organizations.
It was only natural that appeals were made to Buczko in 1979 when the tentative itinerary of Pope John Paul II’s visit to the United States was announced and Boston was not one of the stops.
“It all started when a Springfield newspaper called me up and wanted me to get him to come to (western Massachusetts),” Buczko said. “A couple of days later, the Herald or the Record-American called me, too.”
Buczko made a personal appeal when he saw the pope in Rome during the summer before his trip and got a hint that plans could change. “I think I may see you in Boston,” the pope said, according to Buczko.
Buczko followed up with a letter which began: “The people of Massachusetts remember with great affection the visits of Your Holiness in 1969 and 1976...”
When the Vatican announced the final plans, Boston was the first stop.
Buczko does not take credit for the pope’s visit, which culminated with a rain-drenched Mass on Oct. 1, 1979, on Boston Common, but he hopes he played a small role.
“It had to have some impact,” he said.
The relationship between the two men really began a decade earlier, when then Cardinal Wojtyla paid a two-day visit to Boston. Buczko was among the dignitaries who met him at Logan Airport in 1969 and was the host of a private luncheon at the former Jimmy’s Harborside.
With the cardinal seated next to the state auditor, the two men chatted in English and Polish.
“I learned how to say ‘lobster’ in Polish,” Buczko said.
Over the years, Buczko saw the pope during his frequent trips to Rome. He also frequently was asked to arrange private meetings for others.
In fact, he remembers coming home from the Salem YMCA one Saturday to a ringing telephone. It took him a few moments to realize the person on the other end was the pope’s secretary calling to confirm arrangements for a papal meeting Buczko had arranged.
Buczko credits Pope John Paul II for his support of Solidarity, a non-Communist Party Polish trade union federation, for helping to end Communist rule in Poland, and for his outreach to other religions and to diverse groups of people around the world.
“I can’t even talk about all the things he did for Solidarity,” Buczko said.
As for sainthood, Buczko said it was a deserving honor for a man who grew up in Nazi-occupied Poland to become a world religious leader while retaining simple virtues.
“He was a very humble person,” Buczko said.
More than 1 million people are expected in Rome tomorrow for the canonizations of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.