Racing the stars across a sleeping Siberia, Pope John Paul II flew to Asia on Saturday with the Soviets on his mind.
John Paul came to South Korea to address a Eucharistic Congress that drew delegates from around the world, but his 44th foreign trip--three countries in 11 days--was historic even before the papal plane touched down here on a cloudless Saturday afternoon.
En route from Italy on a long overnight flight, John Paul's Boeing 747 winged for 8 1/2 hours across the vastness of the Soviet Union, one end to the other. He entered Soviet airspace near Kiev and didn't leave it until leaving the Asian mainland near Mabarovsk.
The first overflight of Soviet territory by a Pope is a barometer of the dramatic warming of relations between two antithetical states that have historically addressed one another mostly in shrill abuse.
The Pope sent Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev carefully worded best wishes from the plane and told reporters accompanying him that he is optimistic about making an eventual visit to the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev will call on the Pope at the Vatican in November as part of a state visit to Italy.
A papal message radioed in English to the Moscow tower Friday night from the cockpit of the Alitalia jet was more memorable for its being than its content.
"Flying over Soviet territory en route to a pastoral visit to several Asian countries, I wish to greet your excellency and to assure you of my best wishes for the well-being and prosperity of your countrymen," John Paul said. "I pray for blessings of the Most High on all the Soviet people."
'We Shall See'
Asked by reporters if the Kremlin-Vatican thaw as a fruit of perestroika had opened the way for him to visit the Soviet Union, John Paul was diplomatically positive: "Yes, I think that situation could develop. . . . On the other hand, I would not like to be a prophet. We shall see what we shall."
On Thursday, John Paul urged Gorbachev to legalize a Catholic church in the Ukraine that has survived underground despite 40 years of official prohibition.
He reportedly told Ukrainian bishops at a synod in Rome on Thursday that he would go to the Soviet Union in 1992 if their church had been legalized in the interim.
Ukrainian church sources in Rome say, perhaps wistfully, that the prohibition imposed by Josef Stalin could be lifted before Gorbachev comes to the Vatican. That visit will be as unprecedented as the spectacle of the Bishop of Rome placidly flying over the Soviet heartland.
Around the Vatican, it is widely accepted that if the Pope wanted to go to Moscow to meet with leaders of the government-approved Russian Orthodox Church, he could go tomorrow.
John Paul, however, while saying repeatedly that he hopes to visit the Soviet Union, has stressed that he would only go if he could meet with Catholics in the Ukraine and the Baltic republics.
Speaking aloft with reporters, John Paul applauded the steady growth of religious freedom under Gorbachev and the "religiosity in the spirit of the Russian people and the other peoples of the Soviet Union."
Desire for Change
He also noted the "increased interest, rather, the need, to respect human rights," and applauded the perestroika concept, which he characterized as "the desire to change the system, by its nature totalitarian."
In recent months, the Vatican's relations with the Soviet Union and its East European allies have improved to levels that would have been unthinkable a year ago. Hungary will soon join Poland in establishing formal diplomatic ties to the Vatican, while the church has been granted new freedoms of action in Czechoslovakia and the Soviet republics of Byelorussia and Lithuania.
When the Pope last came to South Korea, in May, 1984, the idea that he might fly across the Soviet Union was too improbable to discuss. Instead, the papal jet went across the pole, refueling in Fairbanks, Alaska.
This time, the cross-Soviet route seemed the most logical and almost routine way to launch a trip of nearly 24,000 miles that will be the second longest of John Paul's 11-year reign. A 1986 visit to Australia and New Zealand was longer.
The South Korea-bound flight that left Rome on Friday might have been doubly historic if the Chinese had proved amenable. However, they refused overflight rights, forcing a tanks-topping stop in Venice, about an hour north of Rome. From there, it was 13 1/2 hours to Seoul, about an hour more than it would have been if the papal jet could have entered Chinese airspace.
Once again demonstrating the exuberance that buoys him each time he escapes the physical restraints imposed on him by life at the Vatican, John Paul was not disposed to quarrel with China.
"The Chinese government said no to Alitalia. It didn't say no to the Pope," John Paul teased reporters.
While reporters watched the movie "Working Girl" through a Soviet night historic for the Vatican, John Paul napped, rehearsed some of the 28 speeches he will deliver over the next 10 days, and polished his pronunciation of passages for papal recitation in Korean and Bahasa, the language of Indonesia.
At a huge outdoor Mass here this morning, John Paul is expected to echo appeals for unity and nonviolence that marked his initial addresses Saturday.
From South Korea, the Pope flies to Indonesia on Monday. Next weekend, he calls at the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius before returning to the Vatican on Oct. 16.