Inexpressible bond draws Baltimorean

A Pilgrim In Rome

The World In Mourning

The Death Of Pope John Paul Ii

April 07, 2005|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ROME - Lou Williams knew the cobbled streets were no place for a 72-year-old with a cane. He had known about the heat and the crowds and the long waits, and he had been warned not to come without a hotel reservation.

But he came, arriving yesterday on a $2,200 standby ticket on a flight from Baltimore that he really couldn't afford, for reasons he can't entirely explain but that have something to do with the kinship he felt for Pope John Paul II. They both studied Marxism, both traveled the world, they grew up in the Roman Catholic Church and were enthusiastically Polish.

"I'm sure a lot of people think I'm crazy," Williams said, between attempts to cool a curbside cappuccino. "But I'm sure a lot of people are jealous because they feel the same way I do. He was a great man, and for some reason I felt like this was the least I could do, to pay my respects.

Williams was just one among a million or more pilgrims who spilled into every street and piazza within sight of St. Peter's Basilica, turning this city with a reputation for bustle into an explosion of motorcycle engines, helicopter roars, emergency sirens and chanting crowds. The line of followers waiting to view the pope's body stretched through the tight corners of the Vatican streets and along the Tiber River for more than a mile.

A young woman from Rzeszow, Poland, who would only give her name as Beata, said she arrived in Rome yesterday morning after a 30-hour bus ride, ate breakfast and then got in line. At 6 p.m. she had been waiting more than 10 hours, had at least another hour to go, and scoffed at the suggestion that it was too much.

"Of course it is worth it," she said. "He is from Poland. He is the father of our world, and he would have done this for us."

But the story of why a retired Baltimore teacher and school administrator - a former Communist Party activist who calls himself a bad Catholic - risked sleeping in the streets or tent cities of Rome just for the chance to feel the pope's energy helps to explain why so many came from so far to wait for so long.

Born in Highlandtown and reared in the Holy Rosary Church, Williams lives in a house that overlooks the Patterson Park pagoda. He graduated from Calvert Hall High School and the Johns Hopkins University, and then became active in socialist and communist groups. His conversations are peppered with stories about sit-ins, arrests and old-fashioned rumbles with enemy groups such as the American Nazi Party.

But he quit all of his associations - even his beloved Polish-American organizations - after his daughter died of a brain tumor in 1986. Since then, he's renounced communism, registered as a Republican and traveled the world, often alone, looking for life's answers.

Followers offered many reasons for converging on the Vatican - to be closer to God, or to embrace the church, or to pray for the pontiff they call Giovanni Paolo. Williams came to be closer to the man once known as Karol Wojtyla, whom he considers perhaps the greatest Polish hero in his lifetime.

"I was wrong for so many years, and I wish I'd known it earlier," Williams said. "I wish I'd been more like the pope."

Williams can recount other adventures. He says he caught malaria in a Honduran rain forest and toured churches in Ethiopia. All the stories might seem preposterous if Williams were not yesterday, freshly arrived and cane in hand, shuffling across the cobbled streets of central Rome nodding "grazie!" to Italians and plotting how he would navigate the line to see the pope even before determining where he was going to sleep.

Williams fell while crossing a busy intersection yesterday when his cane got stuck in the uneven pavement, and rolled onto a sidewalk and cut his chin. Such was the state of central Rome that he was immediately surrounded by a dozen or more people, including a nun and a man dressed like a monk, showing concern in at least three languages.

And he was undeterred. After a few miles around the Vatican and a lunch of antipasto, he headed off into the city alone, dragging his carry-on bag and clutching a list of budget hotels he got from a tourist kiosk. Sleeping outdoors was not out of the question, yet it seemed hardly on his mind.

"Maybe if I get in line about 3 a.m., that should do it," Williams said before setting off to look for a hotel. "I'll get to see him and pay my respects. It's the least I can do after everything he did for so many other people."

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