Lunch and love at a soup kitchen

The main guest showed up just a little late to his luncheon at Our Daily Bread yesterday, but nobody seemed to mind.

Pope John Paul II emerged about 2:20 in the afternoon from behind a blue curtain into the soup kitchen dining room run by Catholic Charities. He greeted his guests, who stood in two lines. He had just left the parade, which followed his Mass at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

The table, set with a burgundy tablecloth, was placed behind the guests at the center of the large bright dining room with its ivory-colored walls and white and blue curtains.

The room is commonly used to feed some 600 to 800 poor people a day.

Yesterday's menu was a standard one: a chicken and rice casserole, peas and carrots, tomatoes, rolls. Dessert was chocolate chip cookies baked by the children at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart Elementary School.

All but one of the 17 other guests -- who included seven children -- were not the usual Our Daily Bread clientele of homeless, unemployed or the simple poor. But all had benefited in one way or another from one of Catholic Charity's programs.

The only regular there was Alphonso Alvarez, a disabled man who lives in the neighborhood and who declared the pope's arrival in Baltimore an "inspiration." He said he hoped it could do something to lessen the daily violence of the city.

Mr. Alvarez's friend, Douglas Tillery, the only other regular invited to the lunch, was ill.

As the pontiff was introduced by Cardinal William H. Keeler, he took the hand of every guest in both his own. He bent over to kiss every child. Before he left, about an hour later, he kissed most of them again.

As he moved slowly along the lines, the pope seemed tired and frail, suffering the effects of his long hours in public view.

But he seemed determined to greet everybody: when Cardinal Keeler tried to steer him to the table, the pope pulled away and went to speak to the volunteer servers, standing in their green aprons off to the side.

The six servers were chosen for their dedication to the charity. All had been at Our Daily Bread since it was founded in 1981.

The meal was planned by the kitchen's chef of 14 years, George Thompson.

Once seated, Pope John Paul II sat silent, or exchanged a few words with the guests at his sides. Grace was said by Cardinal Keeler.

To Ramon Damian, an immigrant from Mexico, the visit, the luncheon were "like something from God coming close to us."

Mr. Damian was the guest chosen to represent the Hispanic Apostolate, the agency dedicated to helping Hispanic immigrants in Baltimore by providing free language lessons and assistance in finding work. Mr. Damian, who has been in this country 11 years, learned English at the Apostolate.

"It was something really impressive," said Mr. Damian of the hour or so he spent with the pontiff. "Impressive in every way."

Asked what the pope had said to him and his wife, Alejandra, and his two children, Julio and Ivan, during lunch (the press was excluded from the meal), he replied, "He blessed us."

The invitation to lunch with the pope was totally unexpected for Tom Mulrenin. The 42-year-old Annapolitan and his family were chosen by Catholic Charities' International Children's Services, which facilitates adoption by Americans of children from overseas.

"I was very surprised. Even more surprised to learn I was seated next to the pope," said Mr. Mulrenin. "He is a mystical man, a charismatic man."

"The pope blessed my wife for being the mother of two adopted children," said Mr. Mulrenin. "He said that it is important that in an opulent society like the United States we serve the poor."

The Mulrenins' children, Kaitlan and Connor, were adopted from South Korea.

After lunch Donna Campbell, 32, said that most of her conversation with the pope during lunch was about her children's schooling. Ms. Campbell said she had managed to keep her three children in school because of the help she received from the St. Veronica Head Start program.

The pope she described as "a very nice, soft, gentle person."

Her 6-year-old daughter, Brittany, said she gave the pontiff a kiss.

"He said I was a nice girl," she said.

Asked if the pope enjoyed his meal, one of the guests said, "He ate everything."