- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 2, 2005


Americans marked the death yesterday of Pope John Paul II, recalling him as a great leader who combined warmth with moral power and a call to care for the poor with an emphasis on liberty.

Bells tolled at Roman Catholic churches across the nation. Leaders of all faiths spoke out to honor John Paul; flags were lowered to half-staff and black bows replaced Easter wreaths.

Many mourners reflected on the pope’s long suffering and graceful acceptance of death. For others who recalled meeting him, it was the pope’s small gestures that stuck with them.

The softness of his hands is what Charlene Moser remembers most clearly.

In 1993, the Denver woman met the pope with her friend Linda Drabek, then a 21-year-old heart-and-lung transplant patient who was among several young people with terminal illnesses chosen to attend Mass with John Paul during his visit to Colorado as part of World Youth Day.

“He grabbed our hands, put his hand on our head and gave us a private blessing, each and every one of us. When it was over, Linda and I looked at each other, and the first thing we said was, ‘His hands were so soft.’ His hands were incredibly soft. He was so gentle and soft-spoken. … He really did take time to stop and make us each feel special.”

It wasn’t a prayer or a blessing that cemented accordion player Steve Koszelak’s connection to the pope — it was music: A Polish drinking song and a Polish tribute to mothers, played out with strings and accordions.

John Paul tapped his fingers and toes as Philadelphia’s Polish American String Band, decked out in the full sequin-and-feather regalia they wore for the city’s flamboyant Mummers Parade, played for thousands at a general audience at the Vatican in 1998.

“As he was leaving, he turned and looked at us and shook his cane like he was doing the Mummers strut,” Mr. Koszelak said. “You could tell he really enjoyed it.”

In downtown Boston, a sign posted on the door at the St. Anthony Shrine announced the pope’s death.

“I think his journey through suffering is complete. I’m proud, as a Catholic, of the way he died. He was a model of how to die with dignity,” said Christine Hall, a 25-year-old teacher present in church for confession.

After a Mass in Washington at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Lisa Jenkins of Orlando., Fla., offered her hopes for the future: “It’s a sad day. I’m praying for the world to open its eyes for what he stood for — peace, morality and more.”

People of different faiths and viewpoints all found ways to praise John Paul, whether for his efforts to unite people, his opposition to abortion or his stance on world politics.

The Rev. Billy Graham said John Paul “was unquestionably the most influential voice for morality and peace in the world during the last 100 years. … He was convinced that the complex problems of our world are ultimately moral and spiritual in nature, and only Christ can set us free from the shackles of sin and greed and violence.”

In Milwaukee, Aliyah Seck, a Muslim graduate student, recalled traveling with Christian friends to welcome the pope when he visited Senegal in 1992. Mr. Seck said he always respected John Paul. “My religion talks about peace all the time and the pope has been preaching peace his whole life, trying to bring people together,” he said.

In Chicago, many businesses in a predominantly Polish-American neighborhood closed early, said Bogdan Pukszta, director of the Polish American Chamber of Commerce in Chicago.

“Concentrating on business as usual is tougher … it’s impossible for many,” he said.

In Los Angeles’ downtown cathedral, Marisol Carbajal, originally from Chile, broke down in tears. “There are no words to describe the pain I feel, and I can’t even explain exactly why,” she said in Spanish.

Her husband, Jose Carbajal, said the couple’s son asked why — if the pope was so close to God — was his illness so prolonged?

“I’ve asked myself that as well,” Mr. Carbajal said, “but I think that in going that way he … produced this feeling in the world that we need to be united.”

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