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The People's Pope

"He said to me: 'You've suffered your whole life and you're not going to suffer again. I pray for you.' He put his forehead on my forehead. And he said, 'I pray the 'Hail Mary' with you. And he said, 'The pope cares, and God loves you.' "

Raymond said his life improved dramatically, he regained his independence and got a job.

"I really started to believe in myself," he said. "It changed my life. I felt the Holy Father cared, and I realized that God loved me and would help me."

In any gathering, John Paul would make a beeline for the kids. He might be exhausted from hours of ceremony, but his face would always light up around young people. Catholic scholar Pia de Solenni recalled a small papal audience attended by a young Italian couple with their child in a wheelchair:

"The pope almost rushed through the rest of us to get to that child. He wanted to know everything about him, he kissed the child on the forehead and blessed him. I was incredibly moved by it -- by his awareness of the beautiful humanity of that child, who couldn't talk, and whose head was flopping to the side."

Even in less dramatic circumstances, merely being in John Paul's physical presence seemed to have an impact.

Ruth Schoenwald and her late husband, Matthew -- both Jewish -- met the pope in Rome in the early 1980s. Matthew had been born in Poland, and was an official of a New York garment workers' union.

"It was a big outdoor audience and there were thousands of people behind the ropes," Schoenwald recalled. "The pope came over and spent five minutes talking with us personally. He'd been told my husband was there, and said he was very proud of him. The pope took my hand and kissed it, and I cannot begin to tell you how gracious and how warm he was.

"It was one of the most exciting times in my whole life."

Cardinal John O'Connor identified the effect as "phenomenological personalism brought to life" in his preface to "John Paul II: A Tribute in Words and Pictures," by Monsignor Virgilio Levi and Christine Allison.

"Far more than merely writing about phenomenological personalism, his own philosophical bent," O'Connor wrote, "he clearly considers the individual with whom he is speaking or to whom he is listening at any given moment the most important individual in the whole world."

In the end, as his vigor left him, John Paul presented a different figure. No longer youthful and energetic, he sat slumped in his chair during Mass, often in apparent pain, barely able to read or speak.

Many wondered why he didn't resign.

A young seminarian named David didn't wonder. Visiting the Pope John Paul II Center at the time of the 25th anniversary, David knew what the pope was doing.

"He's living his message now -- the value of human life, so precious that Christ died for us," David said. "The pope is showing us, in his infirmity and his hurt, in his vulnerability, that suffering is redemptive.

"He's showing us what infinite value we have, that you can't treat a person merely as an experience or a means to an end.

"He's imitating Christ."

Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this appreciation.

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