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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cassocks in a Fluster as Pope Swings into Town

BAKU, Azerbaijan -- It's been a busy week for Pope John Paul II, who touched down in Baku on Wednesday for a flying visit before traveling on to Bulgaria.

For the first time on a foreign trip, the pontiff, who turned 82 this month and who suffers from Parkinson's disease, had to be winched off the plane on a hydraulic lift at the Baku airport.

"Poor old boy, he really ought to be in bed," one of the reporters said as we huddled together beneath gathering clouds on the tarmac.

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Meanwhile, at the Palace of Hand Games in central Baku, the head of Azerbaijan's tiny Catholic church, Father Daniel Pravda, was putting the finishing touches to the stage where the pope would say High Mass.

All week Father Daniel and some of his 120 parishioners had been shuttling between their church and the Hand Games Palace. By Wednesday, Father Daniel was looking sick with worry.

The day before the pope arrived, I asked, above the noise of three vacuum cleaners, the Azerbaijan State Choir and an electric drill, whether I might interview him briefly about the pope's visit.

"I'm too busy," he said.

"Don't worry, I can wait," I said. "But I would like to speak to you as the head of the Catholic Church here."

The next thing I knew, Father Daniel had slipped out of the back of the Hand Games Palace and down an alley. The last I saw, he had lifted his cassock and broken into a run across a water-logged park, three reporters and a photographer hot in pursuit. I thought I'd better leave him to it.

I'm not sure Azerbaijan was properly prepared for the pope's visit. The day of his arrival, a team of carpenters was still putting up the ramp outside his hotel.

Still, hastily stitched Vatican flags were hanging from every other lamppost, and the potholes outside Father Daniel's church had been filled in.

There was a slight hiccup when the bus taking Vatican photographers and journalists to Azerbaijan's war memorial, the pope's first port of call, hit a low bridge at high speed, knocking the air conditioning unit off the roof and shattering the rear window. But the driver ignored it and carried on driving.

"At least we made it to the memorial in time," one of the photographers said.

The next day, the pope said Mass at the Hand Games Palace before being winched back onto the plane to begin the next leg of his tour in Bulgaria. He looked as exhausted as Father Daniel. They could probably both do with a holiday.

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.