Minutes from meeting Pope John Paul II in 1995, Justin Farinelli of Pasadena had one fear racing through his mind.
"I didn't want to drop the flowers," he recalled last week with a laugh. "They were almost as big as I was."
Farinelli, 9 years old at the time, was among two children selected from local Catholic churches to greet the pope when he visited Baltimore on Oct. 8, 1995. With the canonization of the late pope scheduled for Sunday, April 27, Farinelli is reflecting on the man who helped to humanize his faith.
"You think of the pope, you think of some mysterious figure," said Farinelli, now 28. "But at that moment, I realized he's a person just like you. That this is someone you can actually try to be like."
Grasping a bouquet of black-eyed Susans — and having already made acquaintance with then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening and then-Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke — Farinelli and Melissa Brent of Columbia were the two children chosen to meet Pope John Paul II when he arrived at what is now Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
An altar boy at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Roman Catholic Church in Riviera Beach, he was given the distinction by his pastor, Monsignor Dennis Tinder, who helped organize the celebration.
"It was a pretty meaningful and special moment in my life," Farinelli said.
Farinelli knew he was meeting a pope, but he couldn't have guessed he was meeting a future saint. Pope John Paul II, who served as pontiff from 1978 to his death in 2005, will be canonized in a Mass at the Vatican in Rome. The ceremony makes him and Pope John XXIII, who served as pope from 1958 to 1963, the Roman Catholic faith's newest saints.
Though Farinelli's interaction with the Pope John Paul II 19 years ago lasted only about a minute, his mother, Cathy Farinelli, said the experience has stuck with the family for life.
A photo of the pontiff embracing her son and Brent has gone on to grace several books about the new saint and has served as the inspiration for a 7-foot, 850-pound bronze statue that sits inside a prayer garden near the Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore.
"This is something a 9-year-old boy has to grow into," his mother said. "He still has to grow into it. It has certainly made us feel more like family with the church."
Cathy Farinelli still cherishes a rosary the pope gave Justin during the visit.
"It's become a family heirloom," she said. "Maybe someday I'll give it back to Justin."
These days, Justin Farinelli is an infantry officer based at Fort Carson, an Army installation in Colorado. He was deployed to Afghanistan from April to December 2012. He joined the Army in 2007, and he and his wife, Amber, have a 6-month-old son, Liam.
Farinelli said his Catholic faith remains central to his life, due in part to his experience with the man who would become a saint.
"It had a huge impact on my perspective of things," he said. "He's human. You can live like him, you can live a pious life."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun