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A peek through the Vatican curtains

Personal stories from those closest to the beloved pope

By Delia Gallagher
CNN

Dziwisz and Gallagher
CNN's Delia Gallagher with Pope John Paul II's personal secretary and close friend Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz.

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John Paul II
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Rome (Italy)

VATICAN CITY (CNN) -- "At Christmas time, at night, when he couldn't walk anymore, we'd bring him to the window to peek at the square below. To see the Nativity scene, and the crowds, without being seen himself."

This image of a pope sneaking a glimpse through the curtains of the papal apartment is one of my favorites. It was told to me by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, as part of our two-hour "CNN Presents" special, "The Last Days of Pope John Paul II."

Dziwisz was the personal secretary and a close friend of Pope John Paul II for nearly 40 years. He told me the story last month, when I interviewed him in Krakow, Poland, in the same office where his friend and mentor once worked as Cardinal of Krakow himself. Dziwisz is a man who in the last days of the pope's life took care of him 24 hours a day. (Watch the details of the pope's last day -- 9:10)

"My life became his life," Dziwisz told me. "I didn't have a private life. His schedule, his work became my work, my schedule."

When I covered the Vatican, I used to see Dziwisz when I went up to the papal apartments to visit the pope. He was always smiling and welcoming, but he never spoke on the record. It was a first for me to see him opening up about his friend, and to reveal so many personal memories about the last days of the pope.

We also had rare access to the 10th floor of Rome's Gemelli Hospital, the place where Pope John Paul II was taken when he was seriously ill. At that time, none of the doctors would speak about the pope or his condition, but we were able to talk with Dr. Rodolfo Prioietti, the head of the pope's medical team. It was fascinating to hear him talk about what it's like to have the pope as a patient.

"During these critical times," he said, "You have to forget that this is the Holy Father. We have to check our emotions ... it's our job."

We also heard amazing stories from several cardinals who took part in the conclave, the secret ceremony that elects the pope. I remember last year, when I was covering the event in Rome, I was among a few journalists who were given a tour of the Sistine Chapel before the conclave, to see how it had been set up. They showed us the famous stove, which sends out smoke, signaling the election of a new pope. I thought then, "I wonder how the cardinals will handle this?" As you will hear in our special, they had a little bit of a problem.

One year after his death, over 15,000 visitors still visit Pope John Paul II's tomb every day. Many leave behind letters and photos, all of which end up at the office of Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the man who has the job of proving Pope John Paul II was a saint. He must take everything into account: those who loved the pope and those who are critical of him. He must also sift through all those letters, and hundreds of others he receives at his office, looking for miracles.

His job is to find two events that cannot be proven scientifically and can be declared miracles if the pope is to be named a saint.

"What doesn't count as a miracle?" he asked me. "Things like conversions, freedom from vices, peace in the family, getting a new job, passing an exam, finding a girlfriend or boyfriend. These are blessings, but for our purposes, they're not miracles."

I was surprised to learn he works full-time as a lawyer, handling marriage annulments. He receives no pay for conducting the sainthood investigation, even though his job is vital to the ultimate outcome of the process. "Right now, I'd have to say, this is definitely the adventure of a lifetime," he told me.

All of us watched the events in Rome unfold last year, as Pope John Paul II lived the final days of his nearly 27-year pontificate. This special has allowed us to watch the events from the other side of the papal windows. I hope you enjoy these personal stories from those who knew and loved Pope John Paul II.

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