Baltimore faithful reflect on legacy

Sun Staff

As word spread yesterday across the Baltimore region of Pope John Paul II's deteriorating health, devout Catholics began vigils for him and religious leaders praised his 26-year tenure as having an impact far beyond the church's own followers.

"He is going to be known as Pope John Paul the Great," said Sue Abromaitis, an English professor at Loyola College, as she walked into the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in North Baltimore for a late afternoon Mass. "It has been a privilege to be alive during his papacy ... . Even in his dying, he is the Pope of life."

While struggling to recover from throat surgery, the 84-year-old pontiff developed a high fever yesterday caused by a urinary tract infection. The leader of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics was receiving antibiotics, the Vatican said in a statement. But his health was so tenuous that he reportedly received the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, also called the last rites.

In the Catholic community here, followers began gathering to pray and prepare. At St. Casimir Roman Catholic Church in Canton, several parishioners gathered in the chapel as the Rev. Ross Syracuse asked the group to remember the pope in their prayers.

"In our own quiet way tonight, we can be with him in our prayers," he said. "We can unite with people around the world and pray."

In Carroll County, St. Bartholomew Roman Catholic Church in Manchester had begun preparing black and gold material to be draped over the church entrance, said the Rev. Michael J. Roach.

"Even in America, there are certain traditions that we keep" when a pope dies, he said. "We drape the church in black and gold for 30 days, and there will also be memorial masses."

Regarded as the most traveled pope in history, he was the only pontiff to pay a visit to Baltimore - albeit for only 10 hours - when he conducted a weeklong U.S. tour in 1995. He celebrated Mass at Camden Yards that day, with 50,000 Catholic faithful in the stands. A parade followed, with thousands of people thronging the streets of downtown Baltimore to catch a glimpse of him.

Many still hold cherished memories of his visit.

Joseph Imbierowicz, a retired Bethlehem Steel worker from Canton who prays at St. Casimir's, a Polish Catholic church in Baltimore, said that news of Southeast the pope's condition saddened him.

But last night, Imbierowicz recalled the emotional day in 1995 when he saw the holy father in Camden Yards. It was a moment of sweet perfection: His pope. His town.

"It was a touching experience," he recalls. "I was close to him. It's just something you only get to see once in a lifetime."

Mary Beth Getka, a member of the archdiocese choir who sang at that Mass, called being in the presence of Pope John Paul one of the highlights of her life.

"All I can say is being there, you just felt like you were in the presence of someone great," said Getka, who is originally from Millersville, but recently moved to East Lyme, Conn. "It was just a very happy, happy day."

Yesterday, local religious leaders contemplated the impact that the pope has had on Catholics, as well as on followers of other faiths.

In Pikesville, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of the Beth Tfiloh Congregation lauded the pope for his efforts at improving Jewish-Catholic relations, saying he "changed the course of history."

Wohlberg said he was in awe during his visit to the Vatican in January and was impressed by the pope's warm reception to him and other Jewish leaders.

"He referred to Jews as brothers in faith - that is such a radical change from being called Christ killers," he said. "He was the first pope to ever visit a synagogue. He was the first pope during which the Vatican established a diplomatic relationship with Israel. He had a Holocaust remembrance at the Vatican."

In East Baltimore, the Rev. James McLinden, pastor at St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church, said yesterday that Pope John Paul has been known for his strong convictions and for his ability to communicate his beliefs worldwide to people who look to him for guidance.

"His teachings on social issues and justice and the sense of evangelization and spreading of the gospel message have been very strong," he said.

McLinden said those particular messages resonated with the parishioners of St. Francis, the nation's oldest African-American Catholic congregation.

"He has touched the African-American community by his visitations and his writings," he said. "He also spoke about economic justice of all peoples. That certainly touches on people throughout the world, and it certainly touched upon the hearts and the minds of African-Americans."

At Agnes Quick's Canton home, she's got a curio cabinet. And front and center, among her rows of collectibles and figurines is her very favorite: A ceramic likeness of the pope atop his throne.

When she dusts, the 81-year-old is oh-so-careful with that piece, which her late husband sent away for years ago. It gives her peace and it gives her pride.

"To me, he just looks like a saintly person," she said last night. "I'm very proud that he's Polish and so am I."

She'll be praying for him.

"It's in God's hands now," she said. "When the good Lord wants us to come home, he's going to take us."

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