Ever since she met Pope John Paul II when she was a schoolgirl in 1995, Melissa Brent has frequently replayed the brief encounter in her mind.
But when she learned that John Paul would be canonized as a saint this weekend, she burst into tears.
"Everything was just real, all of those emotions just hit me at once. … All these years and it's like, 'Wow, I met a saint and I can feel it,' " said Brent, a 26-year-old nurse now living in Virginia Beach.
In 1995, Brent was living in Columbia with her family and attending third grade at St. William of York School in Baltimore. Brent, who was 7, and 9-year-old Justin Farinelli of Pasadena were chosen to greet Pope John Paul II at what was then Baltimore-Washington International Airport when the pontiff visited Baltimore for a one-day visit on Oct. 8, 1995.
"I do remember the specific details of that day, prepping and getting ready, arriving at the airport, all the commotion and crowds," she said.
Though she knew she was meeting the pope, Brent said that at the time, she didn't fully appreciate the significance of the event. She remembers thinking, "I just have to walk up and give this man some flowers."
"At 7 years old, you don't really understand," she said.
Brent and Farinelli presented the pope with black-eyed Susans, and he embraced the children and gave them rosaries.
That moment is memorialized in a bronze statue in the Pope John Paul II Prayer Garden near the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore. The 7-foot-tall statue shows Brent with her arms around the pope and the pontiff's right hand gently resting on her back.
After the brief encounter with the children at the airport, the pope went to Baltimore, participated in a parade, celebrated Mass for tens of thousands of Catholics at Oriole Park at Camden Yards and visited Catholic institutions. Brent has scrapbooks and framed photos of that day, and keeps the rosary the pope gave her alongside a photo of her late grandmother, who adored the pontiff.
Over the years, she's reflected on her moment with the pope when he's been in the news, including when he died in 2005 during her senior year at Atholton High School. In 2012, Brent went to the Vatican, where she saw his tomb and was told that he would soon be recognized as a saint.
Even then, she says, "It wasn't real to me."
Now it is. "The older you get, the more things you realize," she said. "I have the full understanding along with the emotion. I was just completely swept away."
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Once she stopped crying and called her mother to tell her about the pope's canonization, Brent went online to read all the news she could about this weekend's events.
Popes John Paul II and John XXIII will be canonized during a Mass in Vatican City that will be attended by Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori and about 40 local Catholics. Special Masses will be held in Baltimore on Sunday, including one at 10:45 a.m. at the basilica and another at 1:30 p.m. at Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church, a Polish-American parish in Fells Point.
Pope John Paul II, who was born Karol Wojtyla in Poland, reigned from his election in 1978 until his death in 2005. He was beatified — a step toward sainthood — by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011.
Brent said she plans to hold on tight to her pictures and rosary — and her memories.
"When I have kids and grandkids, this is somebody they will learn about, and I will say, 'This is someone I met,' " she said. "I met him. He's a saint."