New England reflections
He was the pope who traveled the world, reached out to other faiths, inspired the young and the old. He led the Catholic Church during the fall of communism and the clergy sex abuse scandal. Pope John Paul II touched thousands of lives, many of them directly. Here are some New Englanders' stories.
A gentle touch from someone 'genuinely holy'
His palms were uncalloused, so soft that ''it felt like he was wearing a velvet glove." The cross around his neck was bright, pure gold. The blue eyes were soft and direct.
But mostly, Andrew DeMaio remembers the hand: the way it rested gently on the right side of his head, as Pope John Paul II offered a quiet blessing, for healing.
It was 1998, and DeMaio, then 32, had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. A doctor in Virginia had told him he had a year to live.
The trip to Rome came up by happenstance: A neighbor of DeMaio's sister worked for the Flying Hospital, an airplane outfitted with an operating room, then owned by evangelist Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network. The hospital's patrons were headed to Rome on a fund-raising trip, and invited DeMaio and his sister. Sometime before the pope's public audience that week, someone had sent word to the Vatican that DeMaio could use a blessing.
So DeMaio and his sister gathered, with nearly 1,000 others at a huge auditorium at the Vatican. They marveled at the people who had come from across the world, the electricity that rippled through the room when the pope appeared.
''I don't know if everybody's jaws just dropped like mine did," DeMaio said.
And when, after waiting in a long, long line, he finally reached the holy man, the pope, without a word, pressed his palm on one side of DeMaio's head. The tumor was right there. And that brief blur of a moment, DeMaio says, left him with a lasting thought: This man was ''genuinely holy, something that I have not experienced from meeting any person other than him before."
DeMaio returned to the United States, where his health improved. In 2003 he moved to Boston, where he works as a docent at the Old North Church. The tumor is still there; he receives treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. But he said he feels good.
''I don't discount the power of Jesus and the Holy Spirit," he said. ''I don't discount any of that. I like to believe that the pope had something to do with the fact that I'm still here today. It certainly didn't hurt, going to see Pope John Paul II."
'Incredible man' though paths never converged
He never managed to meet the pope, though he got close. Gary Bergeron spent the better part of a week inside the halls of the Vatican, meeting with administrators, waiting in well-appointed chairs, asking for an audience, and asking again.
It was March 2003, and Bergeron, then 40, wanted Pope John Paul II to understand. Bergeron says he is a survivor of clergy sexual abuse, a victim for years of the Rev. Joseph Birmingham at St. Michael Church in Lowell. Since the scandal had broken, Bergeron had met with accusations and cold responses from the Archdiocese of Boston. The Vatican seemed no different.
But Bergeron knew this pope's life story, the way he had fought communism and sought reconciliation with the Jewish and Orthodox communities. And he believed that if he sat with survivors face to face, if he heard their stories, John Paul II would understand, and would respond.
So Bergeron went to Rome uninvited, along with Bernie McDaid of Salem, another man who says Birmingham abused him, and Bergeron's father, Joseph ''Eddie" Bergeron, who said he had also been abused by a priest. For days, they went to the Vatican and knocked on doors. They went to church officials' homes. The Swiss Guards at the Vatican said they had made bets on how far the trio would progress. The staff at the cafe across the street from their hotel took messages when the hotel phones failed.
The evening before the Bergerons and McDaid were scheduled to return to the United States, the Vatican sent two officials to Bergeron's hotel suite. The group spoke for more than two hours. The next morning, a package arrived at the hotel: a note from the Holy Father, wishing for safe passage, and offering a gift of rosary beads.
It was something, but not enough.
''I would have liked to have given him the opportunity to know who we were and what we were about, and it was an opportunity missed," Gary Bergeron said. ''However, I judge a man by the sum of his life, and not by one deed. I still think of him as a pretty incredible man."
And he has spent the past week reflecting on two paths that -- despite his fiercest efforts -- never converged.
''Many people think the journey that, as a survivor, I've taken has been about vengeance," Bergeron said. ''You know what? This has really been a journey of peace for me, making peace with my past and finding the inner peace that I've never had in my entire life. This man was able to die in peace. My journey continues."
He ate lobster at Jimmy's - and gave a lesson
Cardinal Karol Wojtyla had never eaten lobster.
He may have been a scholar, a skier, a poet. But when Wojtyla, then archbishop of Krakow, arrived in Boston in 1969, on one leg of his good-will tour of Polish-American communities, he had a hole in his culinary repertoire -- before Thaddeus Buczko got involved.
At the time, Buczko was state auditor and a friend of Monsignor Stanislaus Sypek, the Polish pastor of St. Adalbert's Church in Hyde Park. Sypek was guiding the cardinal through Boston, and asked Buczko to arrange for a luncheon with local leaders.
It was a fitting choice; like the cardinal, Buczko had managed to maintain a Polish identity in a firmly non-Polish milieu. The American-born son of Polish peasants, he had won a City Council seat in an Irish-Catholic district in Salem, served as state representative and, in 1964, was elected auditor statewide. He knew how to work the system.
But this was a new political problem: where to have lunch with a cardinal?
Buczko asked his administrative assistant, Jane Kelly, who suggested Jimmy's Harborside.
Two weeks later, Wojtyla, in dark cassock, joined politicians and local clergy in an upstairs room at the waterfront restaurant. He had two entree choices: beef or baked stuffed lobster. He chose the lobster. And as he sat beside Buczko, speaking in Polish with English interspersed, he offered a gentle lesson.
Buczko told him that his mother had always referred to lobsters as ''raki." Wojtyla explained that it was the word for crayfish or crab. Lobster, in Polish, was ''homar." From Latin, he said. Quite close to the word in French.
It was a gracious explanation, Buczko recalled -- almost as gracious as the speech Wojtyla gave, thanking Buczko for the gathering and making a cheerful prediction. Someday, he said, the state auditor might become governor, or senator, or even president of the United States.
When Buczko rose for his closing remarks, he had to return the compliment. ''Someday," he announced, ''Cardinal Wojtyla may actually become pope."
At the time, ''it was all in good fun," said Buczko, now 79. Everyone smiled, applauded, and laughed, certain it would never really happen.
Leonard P. Zakim
Papal blessing came with sneeze, knightly honor
Among the things Leonard P. Zakim wanted to experience before he died was a visit, in Vatican City, with Pope John Paul II.
Zakim had spent his tenure as New England director of the Anti-Defamation League working to improve interfaith relations. He and the pontiff shared a desire for reconciliation and cross-cultural understanding.
They also shared the need to be strong in the face of illness.
By November 1999, when the Catholic-Jewish pilgrimage -- which Zakim had helped to organize with his friend, Cardinal Bernard Law -- was scheduled to leave Boston for 10 days in Israel and Rome, Zakim's bone marrow cancer had worsened. He skipped the Israel leg of the trip and met the group in Italy. He wore a neck brace and brought a friend to help with medication. But his spirits were high, recalls Christy Jackowitz, the league's acting director.
And on a bright-hot Monday, he went with the group to St. Peter's Square. They sat beneath an open-air tent as the pope -- who stayed seated, his head bowed -- addressed the teeming crowd in 16 languages.
Then they drew close to receive a papal blessing.
Zakim brought the pope a book, ''And I Still See Their Faces: Images of Polish Jews." The pope laid a hand on Zakim's head and prayed for his health. The pontiff sneezed. Zakim said, ''Gesundheit." Both of them smiled.
Afterward, the group was led to a private room inside the Vatican, where an official described, for them, the highest lay honor the church bestows: the Knight of St. Gregory. In front of the group, Jackowitz said, the official pinned a medal on Zakim's lapel and made him a knight.
''This is a kid from Wayne, New Jersey, who tried to play football," said Zakim's friend, Harold W. Schwartz. ''It's mind-boggling. No one's blowing this up bigger than it was."
Zakim sat behind Schwartz on the plane ride home. ''He was thrilled and proud," Schwartz said. ''He was beaming. But you could see that he was tired."
Zakim died a month later, at 46. His funeral, at Temple Emanuel in Newton, was attended by 1,800 people from various faiths.
The girls of Our Lady of Nazareth Academy
Young singers won't forget his 'peacefulness'
Patricia Tamagini saw the ad in a Catholic magazine, in 1994. It was a contest, seeking high school groups to sing original contemporary Christian music. At the Vatican.
This was a perfect opportunity, thought Tamagini, the director of performing arts and theology at Our Lady of Nazareth Academy in Wakefield. Her daughter Lora, a teacher at the school, had written contemporary Christian songs. The chamber singer choir had recorded a compact disc. Tamagini sent it along with her application.
Patricia Tamagini received an invitation to Rome. And 44 girls from Wakefield started furiously raising money, so they could sing for the pope in St. Peter's Square.
''It was never an option not to go. We had to go," said Jennifer Fontana, a sophomore at the time, now 24. ''I mean, Italy. To see the pope. My God."
They held concerts and bake sales and collected sponsorships. They planned a singing tour at churches in Rome, Florence, Sienna, and Assisi. On the flight to Rome, the crew asked them to sing from their seats.
And on April 16, 1996, they put on their school uniforms -- sweaters, plaid polyester skirts -- and headed to St. Peter's Square. They stood at the foot of the basilica steps, with groups of young singers from Poland, Spain, Austria, and France. The pope, still healthy and vibrant, stood at the top of the stairs, listening to the music. When the singing was over, the girls climbed up to him, and he walked over to thank them.
In English, he praised their voices, recalls Patricia Tamagini, now 66. He thanked Lora Tamagini for her beautiful songs. ''God bless you," she told him. ''No," he said. ''God bless you."
For a teenage girl -- Catholic or not -- he left a firm impression.
''He had amazing presence, just this feeling of kindness," said Laura White, a Congregationalist, now 24.
''He had this fantastic peacefulness about him," Fontana said.
But what struck Patricia Tamagini most was that this elevated man, the leader of his faith, had taken the time to linger with a group of girls.
''He was so gentle and down to earth. Just really down to earth," Tamagini said. ''Holding our hands and talking with us eye to eye."