ROME — As British Airways Flight 268 from Los Angeles flew over Ireland, a flight attendant emerged from the cockpit and handed Cardinal Roger M. Mahony a printout with the answer to the prelate's question.
"Pope John Paul II's condition remains very serious, and he has started to show signs of losing consciousness," said the message early Saturday from the airline's main office. Mahony read the words silently and handed the printout back.
He remembered a fleeting thought that had come to him 14 years ago when he received the red hat of a cardinal from the pope.
"I realized that maybe one day we would be called upon to come together to choose his successor," Mahony said during an interview en route to Rome. "It was that awesome feeling."
Now as he headed to the Vatican, the moment had come for him -- as a prince of the church -- to participate in the closure of a historic pontificate that bridged two millenniums and to choose a successor to occupy the throne of St. Peter.
In the interview just a few hours before John Paul's death, the cardinal, 69, still voiced disbelief that he, the son of a San Fernando Valley poultry farmer, was being called upon to help select the next pope.
Mahony wasn't educated in Rome. Yet he will be one of 117 voting cardinals who will file into the Sistine Chapel 15 to 20 days hence to deliberate the future of the 1 billion-member church and to choose the next pontiff, most likely from among those in the room.
"What am I doing here?" Mahony said Saturday. "How in God's providence did I ever end up in this? I've never divided 1 billion into 117 to get the percentage, but it's a pretty small percentage."
He said the late pontiff would probably be known one day as "John Paul the Great," because of his formidable accomplishments helping bring down the Iron Curtain and improving relations between his church and Jews. The cardinal called John Paul's reign an "extraordinary pontificate."
Mahony said there would be those, including him, who would call for changes in how the church is run. For one thing, he favors discussion about allowing married priests in the Latin Rite of the church. For another, he believes that there will be a major push for a less centralized church that allows bishops more leeway in deciding local issues. Under John Paul, the Holy See has reined in national bishops' conferences and increased the Vatican's role in decision-making.
But as Mahony winged toward Rome, he turned to personal reminiscences and reflections. There would be time enough later for the politicking and the sizing up by cardinals of one another. Instead, the cardinal talked of incidents in which his ministry intersected with that of John Paul.
He remembered finding the pope alone in Mahony's former rectory at the old St. Vibiana's Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles, sniffing a pot of soup on the stove during a 1987 visit.
The cardinal spoke of how John Paul would point at him and say, "Hollywood," the pope's nickname for the archbishop of Los Angeles. The pontiff assigned that label after the papal helicopter circled the Hollywood sign in a holding pattern before landing for an event.
Mahony exhibited no outward signs of grief Saturday.
"We've all been struggling [in solidarity] with him since early February," he said. "I think all of us really started the grieving process then, particularly when he went in for the tracheotomy. It was just clear he was not going to emerge from this and that his life now was going to be counted in days, no longer in years."
Several times during the flight, which stopped in London, Mahony asked attendants for an update on the pope's condition. Each time he was told that there had been no change. When the jetliner approached Rome, he closed his eyes and prayed as he fingered rosary beads.
Touching down at Rome Fiumicino Airport, Mahony walked to the baggage claim area. As the luggage began thumping onto the conveyor belt, a young priest from Philadelphia approached him and apologized for interrupting. The priest said something to the cardinal, who relayed the information to another traveler.
The pope had died, Mahony said. With that, he grabbed his bags and motored with an aide into the Eternal City.
The fleeting thought that had crossed his mind 14 years ago had become a reality.
It was time to bury a pope and elect another.