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Cliff McKenzie, Editor

GROUND ZERO PLUS 1303 DAY--New York, NY, Saturday, April 7, 2005--Pope John Paul II once touched my wife's hand.

We were in Rome on vacation in 1986, and like billions who have before, we jammed into the courtyard of the Vatican to see the Pope. Fortunately, we were in the front row of an aisle, held back by metal gates and very large, ominious looking Swiss Guards trained to protect the Pope with their lives.

My wife and I hoped for a glimpse of the Pope

Beside and behind us were rowdy German tourists, reeking of strong cheese and shouting gutteral comments in a language that, after many hours of standing in the hot sun, turns into sandpaper on the tympanic membrane.

We held fast to our spot despite the constant jostling on either side by the German delegation, whom we thought might be a group of retired women wrestlers, or who were competing for the "before" of an after-arm deoderant commercial.

All we hoped for was a glimpse of the Pope and, if lucky, a photo that wouldn't make the pontiff look like an ant. The aisle we stood against was wide. It carved through a mass of bodies, a ribbon of concrete snaking through teeming sardine-canned humanity.

Clutching the iron fence in desperation as bodies shoved tighter and tighter, we braced ourselves as the crowd began to tense. Over bobbing heads and waving arms in the distance we saw the Popemobile. It was cruising through the pathway between the gates, and standing atop it holding onto a grip was the leader of more than one billion Catholics worldwide, waving and offering his sign of the Cross.

Our hearts beat fast. Would he make his way past us?

The cart disappeared on the right flank of us and I felt this drop in expectations. Maybe he wouldn't come by. Maybe he was doing a big circle rather than cutting through the middle section where we stood.

Then we heard the roar to our right. The Germans shoved hard against us. We held fast to the fence.

To our right hands and arms reached out. Slowly, behind the backs of human palms of old and young appeared the headlights of a golf-cart-looking vehicle. It was white with shiny chrome glinting in the sunlight. There, before our eyes, a simple arm's reach away, appeared Pope John Paul II.

He had that nubiant glow, pink, untouched, pure. His eyes seemed to smile, ignited as though fueled by some deep inner spiritual passion that only a shepherd who loves little lambs may exude when the carries one in his arms.

I stood transfixed for a flash of time, inhaling the vision of a man so large in spiritual statue appearing so real and touchable in real life. One didn't notice the guards around him, for their job was not to keep the people away. The Pope was among his people, and he turned from side to side, leaning over slightly to hold out his hands and touch the people he passed.

He wasn't some rock star expecting those to kneel at his presence, for the glee that was radiating from him was that of him touching others, not of letting them touch him.

He was the fisherman who threw sardines to the fish not in order to lure them to the hook, but rather to honor them by serving them with the food and wine of life. He was, as I gazed for an eternal blink into his eyes, the servant. The flock, the mass of humanity, was the master.

It seemed as though he spotted my wife's hand. He was coming close. Leaning to the right, away from us. Then he turned his head. His eyes seemed to focus on my wife's outstretched hand.

Pope John Paul's hand brushed over my wife's

I had been so mesermized by the event I forgot about my camera. Quickly, I pulled it up, shoving back against the German linebackers battling to press flesh with the Pope.

I was behind my wife as she leaned over the railing, her arm stretched out, palm opened. I swear the Pope looked directly at her. His alabaster skin glistened in the sunlight and there was blush of pink roosting upon his cheeks. I saw him focus on her hand and he leaned our way, his hand out and brushed it over my wife's as well as those eager fingers wagging like the tails of happy puppies for the mere pat on the head from the master of the house.

Click! Click! Click!

My skepticism of religion melted away the day I witnessed Pope John Paul II

I shot fast. One never knows if he gets the shot at the moment. In those days, it was all film. There was no instant approval of the image. My Nikon Fotomic T, ancient by today's standards, top of the line in those days, didn't fail me.

When we did develop the film there it was. My wife's hand being touched by the Pope.

Skeptics of religion as well as the idea that any human can contain the elixir of omnipotence would scoff at the idea of standing in jammed crowds for hours to be "blessed" by the man who wears the Shoes of the Fisherman, alleged by dogma to be the Ambassador of God on earth.

My wife is a born Catholic, raised in the religion and a graduate of a women's Catholic College, St. Theresa in Winona, Minn. I'm a "body-bag-catholic" who joined the religion on my way to Vietnam so I wouldn't die without a body bag because "no preferences," I was informed, most likely would be the last ones to get a bag.

My skepticism for religion melted away that day.

There was something wonderful about this man--this Polish priest who loved mountain climbing and survived the Nazis, who, upon finding out he had been named Pope, continued on his kayaking vacation and finished serving life before donning the "Shoes Of The Fisherman" and becoming the shepherd of a billion people worldwide.

As the Pope lies in Spiritual State, I think of his body in sweet, innocent repose. He was that kind of man in life. Atop the Popemobile, he was not a dynasty--an unreachable person with thick walls of "I'm-great-and-you're-a-speck of dust" aura about him. He was one of us. He was humus. He was of the earth, and you felt that seeping from his every pore.

I met with world leader Ronald Reagan

I have had the opportunity in my life to be near some of the world's leaders. I met with Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford on separate occasions, and, because of their trappings and auras, one felt intimidated in their presence, if for no other reason than the intense searching and security prior to the meeting, and the countless people telling you what you could and couldn't do. Of course, there was the demeanor of the individual. There was something distant about them. You were, in political terms, just anothe vote. You were a faceless being.

Not true with the Pope.

You were a lamb. He was the shepherd.

You felt warm in his arms, even though they might have only been his eyes touching you, they lifted you up to his chest and hugged you, warmed your insides, melted the crusty skepticism of your athetistic soul and told you it was okay to be who you were.

There was unconditional love in the Pope's being.

My wife still beams to this day when she says: "The Pope once touched me."

Pope John Paul will never die

Today, millions have seen his body. I assume he still radiate in death what he did in life--hope for all of us to learn to love ourselves and others just a little more.

In my own way, the Pope touched me.

He will never die, for love just doesn't know how to do that.


Vigils For Pope John Paul II
Local Church St. Stanislaus on Seventh Street in The East Village, NYC (right down the street from us)
Prayer Vigil at St. Peter's In Rome


Go To April 2 Story: "A Case For Benevolent Kings"



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