Autumn 2002 (10.3)
Left: Pope John Paul II met with Azerbaijani
President Heydar Aliyev during his May visit to Baku.
the Scenes - An Altar Boy's Perspective
John Paul II's Speech in Baku, Azerbaijan May 22, 2002
Right: More than 5,000 people attended a two-hour
Solemn High Mass during the Pope's visit.
On May 22-23, 2002, Pope John
Paul II (1920-), the spiritual leader of more than 1 billion
Roman Catholics worldwide, visited Baku. The Polish Holy Father
has served in this office for 24 years, since 1978. Despite his
advanced age of 82, and lack of physical mobility due to Parkinson's
disease and severe arthritis, the Pope honored President Aliyev's
personal invitation to visit Azerbaijan. Aliyev himself met him
at the airport, as did most of the members of the diplomatic
corps. The Pope was accompanied by quite a large delegation,
including 170 journalists.
During his visit, the Pope presented $100,000 in aid for refugees
of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. He also thanked President Aliyev
for providing a building site for a new Catholic church in Baku.
(During the 1930s, Stalin demolished most religious buildings
in Azerbaijan, including both mosques and cathedrals. A few buildings
such as the Lutheran Church and Jewish Synagogue were converted
into concert halls.)
Aliyev welcomed the Pope and praised
his courageous decision to break centuries - long tradition by
visiting a predominantly Muslim country. No doubt, in the wake
of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States,
which have been traced back to radical Islamics, Aliyev wanted
to draw attention to his country's long-standing acceptance of
other religions. Though traditionally Muslim, Azerbaijan does
not name any official State religion in its Constitution. In
addition, freedom of religion is guaranteed to all, as is the
separation of Church and State.
The Pope held a Solemn High Mass at the Palace of Hand Games,
which is located on the Boulevard next to the Caspian Sea. During
the Mass, the Pope addressed the crowd in Russian, calling on
religious leaders to denounce all forms of violence and become
tireless advocates for peace and human rights. "Enough of
wars in the name of God!" he said. "No more sacrilege
and blasphemy of His Holy Name! I ask religious leaders to reject
all violence. As long as I have breath within me, I shall cry
out: 'Peace, in the name of God!'"
This was the Pope's sixth visit to a member state of the CIS
(Commonwealth of Independent States) and his 96th trip abroad
since his appointment. He had already visited the other Caucasus
countries of Georgia and Armenia in 2001. In visiting former
Soviet Union Republics, the Pope has tried to publicly acknowledge
and honor the people who held fast to their faith despite the
persecution they suffered during the Soviet era. Here Fulbright
Fellow and former Catholic altar boy Jim Dasney gives a behind-the-scenes
glimpse of the Pope's visit to Baku.
Right: Baku's Palace of Hand Games was richly
decorated with carpets and flowers for the Solemn High Mass said
by the Pope.
It seems that my years of Catholic
altar boy service have finally paid big dividends. Maybe it's
because not so many years ago, my mom pulled me aside after Mass
and told me to start wearing socks.
(Some of the parishioners had complained to her about seeing
my bare legs in my red sneakers.) Mom always joked that the red
obviously meant that one day I would be a Cardinal. Well, that
would be a long shot, but at least I can boast that I got to
rub shoulders with the Pope on his recent visit to Baku on May
22-23, 2002. I had seen John Paul II once before in the late
1980s at the Los Angeles Coliseum, when he had played to a packed
house. This visit to Baku was much more intimate; in fact, according
to the Vatican, Azerbaijan's Catholic congregation is the smallest
one that the Pope has ever visited. I had the privilege of participating
in the Mass, which took place on the second day of the Pope's
visit. As there is no cathedral in Baku, the Palace of Handball
Games was converted into a sanctuary for Mass. The interior was
beautifully decorated with flowers and dozens of Azerbaijani
carpets in bright reds.
Actually, I was also involved in some of the preparatory events
in the days that led up to the Pope's arrival in Azerbaijan.
The primary languages used at the dress rehearsal were Italian
and French. Russian was third; Polish and Slovak were fourth
and fifth. German, English and Azeri were also squeezed in there
The night before the Papal Mass, we met to receive final instructions.
A kindly Monsignor coordinated these tasks. He seemed to speak
every language except English with us. He was a master of ceremonies
of sorts. He showed us how to solemnly genuflect, turn, place
the vessels on the Altar, bow and depart.
Arriving several hours ahead of time the next day, we Altar Boys
were able to change into our robes well in advance of the Pope's
arrival. We had help from a gentleman that I'll call our Arch-acolyte,
for lack of a better term, even though he is probably a Cardinal.
It took me three tries before I actually found a robe that he
thought fit properly. This linen robe covered me completely,
with an opening for my head. It was a plain, white outer garment
with wide sleeves.
John Paul II arrived early and the Mass started on time. He stood
on a mobile platform and was escorted by a couple of close aides.
The platform afforded him mobility that he otherwise would not
have had, due to his Parkinson's disease and crippling arthritis.
No, the famous "Pope Mobile" was not brought to Azerbaijan.
This newer contraption took him from his Mercedes to the inside
of the Palace of Hand Games. From the Vestibule, he was received
by us seven Altar Boys in the improvised sanctuary. We were each
introduced and then given rosary beads. We were also given a
bronze medallion commemorating the Pope's visit.
The Altar Boys were designated various duties, such as carrying
the censer, incense and so on. It turns out that I was the youngest
of the Altar Boys. Another Acolyte and I had the responsibility
for the lights. I also had to present the Chalice and the Paten
[plate for the Eucharistic Bread] at the Altar for the Holy Sacrifice.
I also carried the Altar Vessels that the Pope used for washing
his hands. My final task was to carry the Holy Water to the Altar;
this water was used to bless the cornerstone of the new Catholic
church that is to be built in Baku.
At present, a Catholic congregation of about 120 to 150 people
meets in a chapel in the Ganjlik suburb of Baku. During the Pope's
visit, President Aliyev announced that he would provide a building
site for a new Catholic church.
During the Pope's two-hour High Mass, the Palace of Hand Games
was filled with more than 5,000 people inside the hall and another
1,500 people standing outside the building. The support and cheers
that they gave the Pope when he left the Palace of Hand Games
was quite phenomenal. It was really quite fascinating to see
such interest and support from the Azerbaijani population.
The Pope changed in the lone Sacristy, the same one we had used
earlier. In addition to an Altar, there was the Pope's throne,
complete with a safety bar to keep him propped upright and comfortable.
Seeing the Pope up so close reminded me of Muhammad Ali. Just
like the great boxer, John Paul II commands great respect and
love. He was hunched over and seemed very sad-looking, but it
wasn't a pathetic scene. As bad off as he may have appeared,
I think everyone respected the positive life that he has lived.
The Pope obviously tries to conduct his life as normally as possible
despite the fact that he's been through so much. After all, he
had just turned 82 the weekend before, he has Parkinson's disease,
plus he has survived an assassination attempt, helped bring down
Communism and traveled to more than 100 countries. For all that,
I don't think he looked bad at all. In fact, he seemed very much
alive and alert to me.
The access and proximity I had to the Pope was incredible. I
might add that the local Azerbaijani security seemed less stringent
than they are with their own President. Perhaps that's what the
Vatican security had requested. Still, it was the first time
I had ever seen secret service priests, replete with the trappings
of special agents, earpieces and microphones tucked into their
After the Mass, we Acolytes were allowed to keep the garments
we wore, allegedly "to be buried in". We were also
given the limited edition of the Eucharistic Celebration hardcover
book that had been published specifically for Azerbaijan. It's
in Italian and Russian. The Pope read the Mass from it in Russian.
The text is printed in Cyrillic script, but there is also a transliterated
version of the Russian in the Polish alphabet, indicating how
the Russian words should be pronounced. The Polish Ambassador,
a fellow Altar Boy, explained that it is easier for the Pope
to read Russian if he uses the Polish alphabet.
The Pope appears very comfortable in his role. One wouldn't say
that the position is bigger than he is. He "wears the clothes",
you might say. The sense of peace, comfort and professionalism
that he exudes is overwhelming. His frailty is related only to
the physical realm. His hat may slip off while he is sitting
down, but he's really alert mentally.
The international media spoke of a man attempting to rush the
Altar. Actually when all that was taking place, I had my back
to the ruckus, since there was a reading going on in Azeri. I
glanced over and saw the Pope trying to receive a man who had
rushed over to him. The intruder was immediately carted off by
Presidential security. Later, he returned to thunderous applause
and was received by the Pope. It seems the Pope is quite at ease
and shows no fear. Actually, the man posed no sort of threat.
He was obviously a simple guy who had lived a hard life and,
overcome with emotion, simply wanted to personally greet the
Pope. I also observed how the Pope interacted and really cared
about members of his staff, who are very attentive to his needs.
They are not awestruck by him but seem rather relaxed in his
company. They joke and seem completely at ease. I guess they've
conducted similar Masses a thousand times before. The officials
surrounding the Pope made the experience very enjoyable for everyone
involved. It's clear that the Pope is surrounded by top-notch
people. I found them to be incredibly bright. They understand
the logistics for such events like the back of their hand.
For me, the Pope's visit was a an event that happens only once
in a lifetime. He left Azerbaijan earlier than was planned; he
appeared very tired, yet enthusiastic. But in the larger context,
this was also a historic occasion for Azerbaijan. It's not everyday
that a predominantly Muslim country like Azerbaijan receives
the head of the Catholic Church. Having the Pope come to Baku
was a huge honor for the Azerbaijani people. This truly was a
unique opportunity for him to share the important message of
peace and cooperation, a message that knows no boundaries or
Fulbright Fellow Jim Dasney is currently finishing his period
of study in Azerbaijan. Angus Hay, a parishioner in Baku, also
contributed to this issue's articles and photos related to the
Back to Index
AI 10.3 (Autumn 2002)
| Search | Magazine
| AI Store | Contact us
Other Web sites
created by Azerbaijan International
AZgallery.org | AZERI.org | HAJIBEYOV.com