St. Pius X parishioners recall role in 1995 visit of Pope John Paul II

Well before the sun comes up on Sunday, April 27, Carol Pacione expects to be in front of the television to watch the canonization of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII. The Mass, presided over by Pope Francis, will be aired live from Rome, beginning at 3:30 a.m.

The day has special significance for Pacione, pastoral life director at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Rodgers Forge. She served on the team organizing Pope John Paul's Baltimore visit in October 1995. And, she was one of the last Baltimoreans the pontiff greeted as his 10-hour visit came to a close.


The meeting, though it lasted only a moment, touched Pacione deeply.

"It's very cool to say I've met a saint," she said.


"I know it's a day people still talk about," she said. "It's indelible."

Mementos she and her husband Mark Pacione have saved from that day are on loan to the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary for an exhibition set to open Thursday, April 24, in the basilica's museum.

Pacione recalled the good feelings, the good works that occurred because Pope John Paul II came to Baltimore. She was also struck by the pope's humility and his focus on others — in spite of his own exalted state as head of a church and head of state.

"The Holy Father was the catalyst for good ministry to happen," she said.

During her tenure with the papal visit committee, Pacione was she was impressed by the outpouring of support from far beyond the Catholic community. "What a cool experience of what church can be," she said.

Pacione, of Fallston, was serving as director of family life for the Archdiocese of Baltimore when she was asked to take on the job of arranging credentials for some 15,000 people, mostly volunteers, who would staff the various venues the pope would visit. These included Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the Basilica of the Assumption, Our Daily Bread soup kitchen, the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen and St. Mary's Seminary and University.

Her husband, now director of research and planning for the Archdiocese of Baltimore and also a St. Pius X parishioner, produced the three-hour celebration — with music, videos, dance and other activities — held in the stadium before the papal Mass.

"We kept everybody entertained as best we could," Mark Pacione said.

Then the archdiocesan director of youth and young adult ministry, he had previously organized the vigil held the night before Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass for World Youth Day in Denver in 1993.

"It was an honor to do those two events for him," he said.

Work on the papal visit began in January 1995, Carol Pacione said, recalling long hours spent in the papal visit headquarters in the Columbus Center, being built at the time at the Inner Harbor. "It was like one great big warehouse room," she said.

She was charged to create credentials that would serve not only as identification for security purposes, she said, but as mementos of the papal visit.


Security concerns were heightened after the April 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, Pacione recalled.

"The Secret Service got a lot tighter with what we could do or not do," she said. "The temperature in the room changed."

Pacione praised the expertise of the youth minister who worked with her, Paul Raspa, now with the Oregon Catholic Press.

Demand for credentials — and people's desire to volunteer with the papal visit team — was extraordinary, Carol Pacione said.

"Up until that time how many popes traveled?" she said. "[People] wanted to be there. They wanted to be part of the day. They wanted to say, 'I was there.' "

And that, she said, made those ID cards and lanyards more important. "We knew people would want to hold onto them," Pacione said.

She spent long hours processing, checking and rechecking the badges, finally finishing up late Saturday night as Boys II Men performed in a pre-visit concert at Pier 6 Pavilion and fireworks filled the skies. And still phones were ringing off the hook.

The last thing on her to-do list that evening was to gather balloons donated by Fuddruckers Restaurant that would mark the stadium entrances to be used by volunteers. It was very late when that last task was done and she had to be at Camden Yards by 4 a.m. "I knew if I went to bed I'd never get up," she said, recalling how tired she was.

On the day of the visit, Carol Pacione had to get to each venue well ahead of the pope to be sure volunteers had their credentials and were in place. She arrived at — and left — the stadium long before the 10:45 a.m. Mass with 50,000 people. Then she was onto the Basilica, the Cathedral and the seminary.

"My job was to be at least one stop ahead of where the Holy Father was going to be," she said.

If there were problems, she wouldn't know about it until she arrived. There were no cellphones — or even much Internet — to help, she said.

She was still at the seminary when the pope arrived and finally got her first glimpse of him. While she was there, she and her husband were asked to drive to the airport where they might have an opportunity to meet the pope — though there were no promises.

The Paciones were waiting on the tarmac hoping to be summoned with a group of about 30 to 40 people to greet the pope.

He had one more meeting — with Vice President Al Gore — before his flight. And then they were called over and lined up to be introduced by Cardinal William Keeler, then archbishop of Baltimore, and to shake hands with Pope John Paul II.

"I can't tell you the anticipation we felt that we might get to meet him," Carol Pacione said. "We knew we were in the presence of a very holy man."

Pacione doesn't remember what she said to the pope and her memory is a little blurred by the tears she couldn't stop as she felt the pontiff's firm grip. And she remembers that he looked directly at her, "as if it were just you."

"I was pretty overwhelmed," she said.

The meeting was an inspiring one, said Mark Pacione. Even as the pontiff showed his passion and love for people, he was clearly tired after his long visit — and the pope's human side served as a reminder that everyone is called to sainthood.

"He did it in a way to inspire us to do the same," he said. "All of us are called to be saints. It's not that far out of our reach."

After the visit, Keeler gave the Paciones a photo of the pope and archbishop embracing during the stadium Mass and a bit of the altar cloth, now considered a holy relic since it was touched by a saint.

Photos, a video and other mementos of the papal visit will be on display in the museum of the Basilica of the Assumption for at least the next month, according to Sean Caine, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The exhibition, which will be free and open during regular basilica hours, is expected to be on display for at least a month. It could be extended if demand warrants it, Caine said.

Most of the items — vestments, a bust of the pope usually on display in the archbishop's residence, programs, tickets and posters — are part of the archdiocese's archives, he said. One unusual item is the telegram the pope sent to Keeler thanking him for the warm welcome in Baltimore. Some items have come from those who played a part in the pope's visit, such as the Paciones, he said.


The Paciones' mementos from that day — banners and the altar cloth from the Mass at the stadium, books printed for services where the pope presided and the altar cloth — will be lent to the Basilica of the Assumption for the monthlong exhibition on the 1995 papal visit.

"I'm just as excited about the canonization of Pope John XXIII," Carol Pacione said. He opened Vatican II, which, among other changes, widened the role of the laity in the Catholic Church. That has enabled Pacione to work for her church, she noted. On the day of the canonization, in fact, she will be helping with her parish's SPX Expo, designed to get people more involved in church ministry.

"I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing," she said.

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