With one kiss, the Pope John Paul II gave Tony Melendez what other Roman Catholic officials had denied.
Born without arms, Mr. Melendez said he had been rejected from the priesthood because he was unable to deliver the Eucharist.
So Mr. Melendez learned to play the guitar with his toes and performed a song for John Paul when he visited Los Angeles in 1987. The pope hopped down off a stage and kissed him.
“It’s more than the kiss. As a Catholic, I’ve been able to start a ministry because of that moment,” Mr. Melendez said. “The ministry that flowed from that day, just by one song and a kiss … he doesn’t know how much has flowed from that. He kissed me and passed on responsibility.”
Mr. Melendez, 43, seized on his sudden fame after the kiss and began traveling, sharing his tale and his music. He hasn’t stopped — recording four solo albums. He also has a regular show in the tourist town of Branson, Mo., and is on tour on the East Coast.
“I’ve been riding on [the pope’s] coattails,” he said in a recent telephone interview.”Every concert, everywhere I go, people ask, ‘How’d you feel? What was it like?’ I always say, ‘It’s exciting. I felt honored. The tears were getting ready to start flowing out of my eyes. The emotion, my heart felt like it was about to pop out of my chest.’”
Other Americans cherish memories of their own brief connections with John Paul.
Steven Newton, 44, of Cincinnati, was spending his sophomore year of college in Rome when his class was part of an audience with the pope in 1980.
Mr. Newton, from the University of Dallas, was wearing clothes similar to the pope’s security that day: a brown shirt, a tie and black pants. As the guards cleared the way for the pope, Mr. Newton’s classmates pushed him into their ranks. Then the pope passed, and Mr. Newton clasped his hand.
“He holds his hand out and he grasps my hand and he looks at me and it was like getting an electric shock,” Mr. Newton said. “It was like everyone else in the room disappeared.”
Mr. Newton, a Presbyterian when he had his encounter with the pope, began studying Catholicism and converted three years later, he said.
“It was the start. I didn’t know I was meant to change faiths. It was a signal I had to do something,” he said.