A Blessed Day In Baltimore

Pope John Paul Ii : 1920-2005

April 03, 2005|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

It was nearly 10 years ago - Oct. 8, 1995 - that Pope John Paul II landed in Baltimore. Yet even as he drew his last breaths, the memories of his brief visit remained vibrant in the minds of those he touched.

Whether they were among the many at the Mass in Camden Yards or part of a more intimate gathering for lunch at a downtown soup kitchen, those who saw and met the pope then, while saddened by his death, recall the compassion he radiated, the wisdom he imparted and the gentle manner that defined him.

During his 10-hour stay that Sunday - the only time a sitting pope has visited the city - Pope John Paul was ushered around by dignitaries but made a point of seeking out the common man.

And while he stirred the masses, hundreds of thousands of whom watched as he cruised down Pratt Street in the "popemobile," he struck deep chords with those he met with individually, as well.

A HUG TO HOLD ONTO

Justin Farinelli, clutching a bouquet of black-eyed Susans, was one of the first to greet the pope when he arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Farinelli, then 9, and Melissa Brent of Columbia, then 7, had been chosen from area Catholic churches to present the pope with bouquets of the state flower.

"I cried for three days when they called and asked," said his mother, Cathy Farinelli of Pasadena, who still attends the same Catholic church, St. Jane Frances de Chantal.

Justin, who will turn 19 in August, is now a freshman at Salisbury University.

"I was in the fourth grade then, but I remember it pretty well," he said. "We showed up at the airport and met the governor and the mayor, and we all went out to where the plane was going to taxi in."

"The plane was late, but when it got there, all the cardinals came out and lined up, and then the pope came down. ... I remember being in complete amazement watching Cardinal Keeler kneel and kiss his ring."

The pope then hugged the children - a moment captured in a photograph that still hangs on the wall of the family home. It looks awkward in the photograph, but it wasn't, Justin said.

"I was holding this huge bouquet of flowers, and I was afraid I was going to drop them, but it wasn't awkward at all, it was just, wow, I couldn't believe this was happening. I was completely awestruck.

"I couldn't wait to tell my friends, and back in school, all my teachers wanted to talk about it. It was like my 15 minutes of fame right there," said Farinelli. "As time has gone on, and I've really thought about it, it just gets more unbelievable."

The pope gave both of the children a rosary, in a case with his signature.

"We've always been a practicing Catholic family, but this was like seeing the reality of your faith," Cathy Farinelli said. "It has been something to hold onto."

LIFTING THEIR VOICES

At 3 a.m. on the morning of the Mass at Camden Yards, choir director George Miller and about 80 students from the chapel choir at Loyola College headed toward the stadium.

"We had to be on the field for sound checks at some ungodly hour like 5:30 a.m.," he recalled. "But for those students, it was a once-in-a-lifetime event."

That day, choirs from Loyola and Morgan State University represented the young adults that Pope John Paul II held so dear.

The choir helped provide music for two hours leading up to the Mass ("We sang right before Boyz II Men - pretty hot stuff at the time"), then were given "very nice seats in the stands where we could chill and enjoy the spectacle of it all," Miller recalled.

When the pope entered the stadium, he drove around the field several times in the white popemobile.

"The kids were still on the periphery of the field, so everyone could see him pretty well," Miller says. "It was an extraordinary day. The fact that my students were so enthusiastic, so generous, so giving just made me feel like the proud papa."

`A BRIDGE TO GOD'

Gino DeSimone isn't a gambler, but the chance to receive a sacrament from the pope seemed too good to pass up.

When the church he and his wife, Robin, and Alex, their newborn son, attended in Richmond announced that they would hold a drawing for two tickets to the pope's appearance at Camden Yards, "We said what the heck. We put our names on pieces of paper and said let's see what happens."

DeSimone, a sales director who lives in Midlothian, Va., and Robin, a preschool teacher, won the lottery and received Communion from the pope, who stood at an altar surrounded by outfield grass.

"You're usually not hit with spirituality at the ballpark," DeSimone said, "but it was really dramatic. It was incredible."

"The pope has a warmth and a genuineness and a peacefulness about him," he added. "He's a bridge to God."

AN INTERSECTION OF FAITHS

What Sister Marilyn Spellman remembers most are the waves of people lined up three and four deep on downtown sidewalks as the pope took part in a parade after the Mass.

"It was the city and the state coming out, people of all faiths and persuasions," she recalled.

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