Sorrow touches Baltimore region

Sun Staff

On a bleak, rainy afternoon as their long vigil came to an end, Catholics across the region sought the comfort of church services and shared remembrances of Pope John Paul II.

Somber crowds in North Baltimore walked through the afternoon drizzle as they filed into the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen for Mass.

"Pope John Paul II was looking forward to this day," said Cardinal William H. Keeler, shortly before the service. "He thought about it often, he spoke of it often as something that would come, and he saw it as a doorway to another phase of life - a better life. That is what we believe, that death is not the end."

Speaking in a small building behind the cathedral, Keeler, leader of the Baltimore Archdiocese, stressed that the Catholic Church "will keep on going," even as it struggles to replace a respected and charismatic pope - a leader Keeler considered a giant in his generation.

"Our history is a long history, and we've had 263 changes of popes so far," he said. "I'm confident it will work out now according to the needs and the challenges of the time, that someone else will come along who will be able to lift up the Gospel message and touch hearts."

The first archbishop of Baltimore in more than 100 years eligible to vote in a papal conclave, Keeler will travel to Rome in coming days to attend the pope's funeral and to vote in the secretive process to elect his successor. He said he has spent much time thinking and praying about how he and others in the church will find a replacement, and that he trusts his faith to guide them.

Waiting for him inside the cathedral were nearly 600 people. Most weeks, about half the seats at the cathedral are filled for Mass, but yesterday the pews were packed with teenagers, the elderly, young parents with babies in strollers.

Church officials had affixed drapes of long black fabric over the doorways - traditional for a pope's death. Inside the dimly lit church, the intricate stained glass windows showed traces of light from the fading afternoon.

'A friend in heaven'

Speaking to churchgoers yesterday, Keeler urged them to believe that Pope John Paul's death does not mean the end for his work and his value in the church.

"I feel like I've lost a friend, but I also feel like we've gained a friend in heaven," Keeler added. "I think so many people saw in this pope a true Holy Father. And now, in prayer, they can bring petitions to him."

All across the city, the pontiff's passing shattered the routine of a Saturday afternoon.

In Canton, a lively bingo game came to a halt at the historically Polish St. Casimir Roman Catholic Church when a phone call brought news of the pope's death.

Some in the crowd, mostly made up of elderly women, began weeping when the volunteer bingo monitor made the announcement.

At the Catholic Community of St. Michael and St. Patrick in East Baltimore, priests were preparing for the routine Saturday afternoon Mass when word came.

"It's a really mixed reaction," said the Rev. Andrew Carr, assistant pastor there. "We're tremendously sad to lose him. ... On the other hand, he's been suffering so much recently but I can't help but be happy that he's gone to his eternal reward."

Carr, who met the pope in 1981 along with 600 others, recalled the moving intimacy with which the pope spoke to them two decades ago. Even with hundreds crowded into the Vatican gardens, the pontiff connected with each of them, he said.

"He was so human and so vibrant that you just felt very much at home with him," Carr said.

Officials offer praise

Throughout the night, state and city leaders also praised the man and mourned his death.

"The world has lost a great man, a great pope," said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele in a written statement. "As he struggled with his own human frailty, Pope John Paul II reminded us of the dignity in living and in dying and of the gospel's eternal message of hope: 'Be not afraid.'"

Baltimore's Mayor Martin O'Malley praised the pope's fight for peace, freedom and human dignity.

"He placed his personal safety at risk to free his home country from communism," O'Malley said in an e-mail. "He took controversial stands against the death penalty and war. His truly was a great life, which changed our world."

For others, his death evoked fond memories.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski recalled the pope's message to her when she and her Polish parents met him at the White House in 1979. "My parents talked to him a little in Polish," Mikulski said. "Then he looked at me and said, 'Listen to your mother and father and, of course, to your Holy Father."

Pope John Paul, the most-traveled pontiff in history, reached out to believers of other faiths. His efforts to embrace others, many mourners said yesterday, earned him love from a wide spectrum of admirers.

Pausing to reflect by his college campus' chapel, Bobby Gross, a Loyola College junior, said, "The thing I remember about the pope is the breakdancers who went to go visit him." Gross could still picture the dancer on TV spinning atop his head with the pope watching, grinning in delight. "He really was in touch with the youth."

Even as beliefs shifted, the pope stuck to his views, said Gross' friend Valerie Woodruff, a 22-year-old senior. But the way Pope John Paul talked about his strict beliefs was something anyone could admire. "He never changed his opinions on premarital sex," she said. "People may have disagreed with him, but they respected that he would talk about it."

Gross, 21, added: "He did everything he possibly could to put the church's teachings in action. I really hope the next pope continues that mission."

At the end of the day, as parishioners returned home from Mass and the TV reports wound down, Mitchell Wohlberg retired to his living room in Pikesville to reflect. Though a rabbi, Wohlberg spent the day mourning the man's death.

That morning at his synagogue, he had talked about Pope John Paul. In the middle of the Sabbath service, he had led the Beth Tfiloh Congregation in a prayer for the pontiff. Then, they had read one of the pope's favorite passages in Psalm 119.

"I am at the point of death," Wohlberg read solemnly. "Let your teachings breathe new life into me."

Later, in the quiet of his Pikesville home, Wohlberg described his emotions. "He touched the hearts of all of us. He was the first pope to visit the synagogue in Rome, the first pope to recognize the state of Israel. And he was first in our hearts.

"He was not just the leader of Catholics," Wohlberg said. "He was a leader of humanity."

Sun staff writers Julie Bell, Kelly Brewington and Josh Mitchell contributed to this article.

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