VATICAN CITY -- Pope John Paul II startled aides Saturday by plunging into a crowd of 2,000 journalists, shaking hands, laughing, exchanging quips and telling them he would like to visit Russia "when they'll let me."
The new pope spent the eve of his investiture as the first non-Italian pope in 455 years and first Polish pontiff in history in an unprecedented session with journalists accredited to the Vatican much to the dismay of Vatican officials.
The former Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, 58, archbishop of Krakow before his election last Monday as the 264th successor to the Throne of Peter will be officially invested with the title in a simple outdoor mass today in St. Peter's Square.
An estimated 3,000 Poles flew to Italy on special charter flights to join world leaders and other pilgrims at the inauguration.
The new pope met with the journalists in the Vatican's Hall of Blessings and delivered a brief address in French on the difficulties of reporting on the Roman Catholic church.
Then, the stocky, white-haired former archbishop rose from his chair on a raised dais in the front of the hall and began to move among the reporters crowding close to see him.
Vatican press spokesman, the Rev. Romeo Panciroli, and ceremonial officers rushed to the pope's side to try to get him to return to his pontifical chair.
Laughing, the white-clad pope got up once more and plunged into the crowd again, startling ceremonial officials even more by joking and answering questions, something no pope has done in modern times.
"Would you like to visit your native Poland?" one reporter asked.
"If they'll let me," John Paul II replied.
Would he as pppe continue his favorite sport of skiing? "If they'll let me," he said, smiling toward the retreating ceremonial officers.
Asked if he would like to visit Russia, the pontiff smiled, paused a second and said, "When they'll let me."
All the while, the pope moved through the tightly packed throng of reporters, asking questions of his own, laughing at the answers, and even slapping one journalist on the back.
When asked if he would be prepared to meet journalists once a year he said: "Willingly ..." and then added after a pause for thought, "Let's see how you treat me."
The pope's replies to direct questions were unprecedented.
All previous meetings between popes and reporters have taken the form of an audience at which the pope gives an address and briefly greets selected individual journalists before leaving the hall.
In his address he acknowledged that coverage of Vatican and Roman Catholic church affairs was difficult.
"It is difficult to present the true face of the church well," said the white-robed, 58-year-old pontiff. "Yes, events are always difficult to interpret and present, because in the first place they are nearly always complicated. It is enough to leave out one incident accidentally or deliberately, to minimize or overstress it, to present a false picture or prediction."
He said the agencies employing the assembled journalists "ask you often and above all for the sensational."