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Pilgrims Flock to Vatican for Tribute

October 16, 2003

VATICAN CITY (AP) _ For speaking out in troubled times. For reaching out to other religions. For inspiring a vocation. For a kindly pat on the head.

Among 50,000 pilgrims who jostled for a place in St. Peter’s Square on Thursday to celebrate 25 years of John Paul II’s papacy, many made the journey because they have felt personally touched by history’s fourth-longest-serving pope.

``He’s a people’s pope. The reason why so many people are here is that people feel they know him,″ said Brother Isaiah, a member of the Brothers Missionaries Charity, a worldwide order for men founded by Mother Teresa in 1963. ``He’s not a pope behind closed doors.″

History’s most-traveled pope, John Paul has created that sense of intimacy by visiting 129 countries and creating a vast library of writings. Pilgrims returned the gesture, flocking from the United States, Poland, Mexico, Ireland, Brazil and beyond to pay tribute to the pope.

As the sun sank behind statues of saints atop St. Peter’s loggia, the crowd applauded as the pope was rolled out in golden robes, at nearly the same hour a quarter of a century ago that the world learned a Polish cardinal named Karol Wojtyla had been elected the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.

His frailty now contrasts sharply with the potency of his legacy: helping to bring down communism in his native Poland, seeking reconciliation with Jews, reaching out to youth, opposing the Iraq war.

``I think he’s ready to go to heaven and I wouldn’t deny him a minute because he has suffered long and hard,″ said Allie Maggini, 62, of Cincinnati.

``But he’s not ready yet,″ said Grace Novak, of Lanham, Md.

Novak remembered leaving her job at a Washington, D.C., hospital to see the pope on his first visit to the United States in 1979. ``Tears just streamed down my face. I don’t know why.″

Expressing their collective admiration, Emily Davis of Cincinnati said: ``We feel he’s a mystic.″

Teresa Ciszewska, of southwestern Poland, recalled the evening 25 years ago when a friend rushed to tell her a fellow Pole had been named pope. Then a young mother, she went with her husband and year-old son to a friend’s house where they could watch the history unfold on television. Word had already reached Ciszewska decades before about an impressive priest from Krakow, named Wojtyla.

``A friend of mine, a priest, had studied under him. He said, ’He’ll be very important,‴ Ciszewska said.

Wojtyla’s elevation to pope shocked the communist leadership, who had considered him the least political of Poland’s prelates, but he quickly inspired devoted Poles to defy the oppressive regime, setting off a chain of events that weakened communist rule in Eastern Europe.

A first-year seminary student from Austria, Thomas Huber said he has been inspired by the pope’s discipline and moved by his presence.

``I’ve seen him in nine private audiences. He has a charisma that impresses people, people who are not Catholic, who are not religious. On the one hand, fatherly. On the other hand, how can I say it, he has a special aura that one feels,″ Huber said.

For Luka Frizza, a 10-year-old from Rome, the pope has been a constant presence, part of the city’s unique landscape. The boy had to be reminded by his grandmother that when he was 5, the pope visited his parish church. ``Right. When he went by, he patted my head,″ Frizza said.

His grandmother, Gina Galderini, summed up her esteem: ``Besides everything he has done, you see him suffering and yet he is still there.″

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