In memory of 3 from Poland


It was 1995 and the Rev. Ronald P. Pytel of Baltimore's Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church believed he was dying.

He and his parishioners prayed to Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun who had been recently beatified, and suddenly the congestive heart failure and degenerative aortic valve that doctors had said would be the end of Pytel were healed.

The priest's amazing recovery, documented by doctors, was one of the miracles that led to the nun's canonization by Pope John Paul II in Rome in 2000.

And so it was that Holy Rosary parishioners gathered yesterday - on Divine Mercy Sunday, the second Sunday after Easter, and a day set aside for forgiveness - to remember three Poles who had touched their community in real and, some would say, divine ways.

There were many at the 2 p.m. Mass who said that the timing of the pope's death, on the eve of the Feast of Mercy, a celebration he had proclaimed a global religious event five years ago, was no mistake.

"Our Holy Father could have taken him any day, but he took him now," said Debbie Ventre, 53, who took a cab from Middle River in Baltimore County so she could celebrate Mercy Sunday at the church where Pytel was healed. "I just thought this was the best place I could be today."

By 1 p.m., the parking lot in front of the church on Chester Street was packed, and parking on the street within a three-block radius was nearly impossible.

In the church's basement gift shop, images of St. Faustina - on key chains, watches and bottles of holy water - were selling fast. Books about the nun, who had an elementary education but kept detailed journals of her visions, were also in great demand.

"All the devotional books are gone," called out Mary Sherron, a Holy Rosary parishioner who also manages the gift shop.

Sherron and other parishioners tried to keep up with a steady stream of purchases, as well as queries from shoppers who were scooping up teddy bears, lanyards and T-shirts, all with the words, "Jesus, I trust in you," printed on them.

St. Faustina wrote in her journals that Jesus Christ - his robed chest radiating beams of red and white light - encouraged his followers to trust in him during one of her visions. The red beam of light represents blood; the white, water, according to the St. Faustina story.

St. Faustina, who died at the age of 33 in 1938, is also said to have prophesied the coming of a religious leader from Poland who would strengthen the Roman Catholic Church.

Some of those who attended the Mass at Holy Rosary yesterday said that the pope was that leader. They said that by teaching the world about Mercy Sunday - the celebration of which includes the reciting of prayers that St. Faustina is said to have received from Jesus Christ - the pontiff encouraged people to be open to God and his forgiveness.

"The pope wanted us to be aware of divine mercy," said Janine Pociluyko, 25, of Perry Hall, whose mother has been a member of Holy Rosary parish since she was a child. "That was part of what he was trying to spread, because God is saying, 'I want to give you mercy; here is my hand, take it.'"

Pociluyko was one of about a dozen people who waited in one line for confession, an important part of Mercy Sunday.

Long lines of Catholics - young and old - could be seen all over the church, in the sanctuary as well as the basement. A young priest who apparently couldn't find a spare room was talking in a hushed voice to parishioners near a banquet table. When someone approached him with an urgent question, he motioned the person away with his hands.

With their souls cleansed, parishioners filed into the church's main sanctuary for Mass delivered by the Rev. Lawrence Gesy - a longtime friend of Pytel, who died of cancer in November.

Gesy talked of his trip with Pytel to Rome in December 1996 to deliver nearly 1,000 pages of documents to prove Pytel's miracle. Gesy also talked about his friend's life as well as his death, which many parishioners are still mourning. Yesterday was their first Mercy Sunday without him.

"Father Ron's last words to me were, "Peace, peace,'" Gesy said, his voice breaking.

Later, Gesy said that he believed the pope had also died peacefully. "The pope taught us how to live and die, as did Father Ron," he said.

Gesy praised the pope as "the epitome of love" and said he has no doubt the Polish pontiff will one day be canonized.

"Doesn't it make you proud to say that he has been our Holy Father?" Gesy asked the congregation, some of whom still recall the pope's August 1976 visit to the church, when he was still Cardinal Karol Wojtyla. "Yes, yes," they responded.

After the Mass, which went on for about 2 1/2 hours, many parishioners visited the Divine Mercy Shrine, in a vestibule of the church, to pray in front of a mural of St. Faustina, whom some call "the Lord's secretary."

A relic - a piece of the saint's bone - is said to be kept in the shrine.

"We still have lots of cures," said Florence Sdanowich, a lifelong member of the Holy Rosary parish, referring to people who say they've been healed after visiting the shrine.

Lisa Crocker, 38, another lifelong member of the Upper Fells Point parish, says she believes that St. Faustina helped her conceive her son, Joseph, 4. She said she has a painting of Jesus Christ as envisioned by the saint in her living room. The painting, which travels from parish home to parish home, and was with Pytel when he died, has brought her comfort in recent days, Crocker said.

"It's very reassuring to have it at home with us now," said Crocker, who lives in Dundalk. "It's like having both Father Ron and the Holy Father with us. I know it might sound crazy to people who don't have faith, but it gives us so much comfort to know that Jesus is with us."

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