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Many people gathered to pray for the pope last night at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End.
Many people gathered to pray for the pope last night at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End. (Globe Staff Photo / Essdras M. Suarez)

N.E. Catholics pay homage to unwavering, visionary leader

In churches, chapels, legacy reverberates

With flickering candles, solemn prayer, and mournful song, New England prepared for a requiem for the pope yesterday, calling John Paul II's final struggle against death a soaring symbol of his epic papacy.

At noontime Masses, evening vigils, and in the hush of quiet chapels, the region remembered the man who stood in the rain on Boston Common in 1979 and told America that it held a special place in his heart.

Yesterday, as the urgent news from the Vatican ricocheted around the world, area Catholics -- even those who said they disagreed with him about some of his teachings -- said that John Paul had found a place in their hearts, too.

''He's a great visionary," said Lana Nathe, 38, of South Boston, who studied architecture in Rome and received the pope's blessing at the Vatican. ''His presence was bigger than himself. He had a higher purpose for everyone. He took a stand, believed in it, and never wavered."

With bulletins from the Vatican about the 84-year-old pontiff's condition making it clear death was imminent, Catholics across New England headed for grand cathedrals and simple stone churches to pray for a man they credited with breaking the grip of Communism in Eastern Europe and repairing relations with followers of other faiths.

Boston Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley scheduled a series of vigil Masses as medical news from the Vatican worsened and TV cameras focused on the lights burning in the papal apartment.

''He's one of the most remarkable people that's ever lived," said Richard Kelleher, who prayed at St. Ann's Church in Gloucester. ''He gave the church back its direction. He said it's OK to be proud to be Catholic . . . That's what being a rock is. And he said it's OK, and made us feel good about that again."

Frank Smaha, 45, of Watertown, said the pope viewed his church as a worldwide institution and made no apologies for remaking it in a conservatism that mirrored his own.

''He was trying to preach to the whole Catholic Church worldwide -- in Africa, in Asia, in Central America -- where a lot of the communities are more conservative than they are here," Smaha said. ''So I don't think he totally disregarded America, but he viewed America as a part of a much bigger whole."

The image of a gravely ill John Paul II asking his aides to read him biblical passages recounting Jesus' path to crucifixion moved some believers nearly to tears as they prayed that his death would be serene and painless.

''I'm just praying that God will reward him and, if it is his time to go, that he goes peacefully," said Rob Lewis, 45, of West Roxbury, who lit a votive candle after a noontime Mass at St. Francis Chapel at the Prudential Center complex. ''He stands behind what he believes in, and he doesn't sway to public opinion or anything that comes and goes -- any type of fad or fancy. He basically lays it on the line and says this is what the Catholic Church is, and this is what I believe in."

Still others were already looking beyond John Paul II's papacy, noting that with church attendance and financial support in the United States lagging, it may be time for a new direction.

''He's a very spiritual man, but spirituality and being practical in today's world are two different things," said Jim Hannon, 42, of Natick, a parishioner of St. Patrick's Church. ''I think right now you really have to get someone a little more modern -- someone probably from a Third World country, because that's where the church has grown the most. And they should look at whether women should be priests, or should women have a bigger role. Women are second-class citizens in the Catholic Church."

As Catholics prepared for the pope's passing and the election of his successor, Jewish leaders took time yesterday to applaud the remarkable contributions John Paul II made in strengthening relations between Catholics and Jews.

Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz called the pontiff a strong and consistent voice that helped to reconcile members of the two faiths.

''In June of 1979, he went to Auschwitz and declared that no one can look on the Nazi murder of the Jews with indifference," Reinharz said. ''That was huge news at the time."

Rabbi Edgar Weinsberg of Temple Beth El in Swampscott said John Paul II ''raised the moral bar" for people of all faiths.

''He's the one who called Jews 'our elder brothers.' I always found it delightful to know that someone of Polish origin would have such a universal outlook in spite of the rampant Polish anti-Semitism during World War II and even after," he said.

Dozens attended a vigil Mass at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Norwood, delegated as a point of prayer for Boston's southern suburbs by the archdiocese.

''I feel sadness. I always respected him. My mother died of Parkinson's and sometimes when I see how he's gotten, it's a mirror image to what she went through," said Marie Bernier, 48, of Norwood, with tears in her eyes.

There is a portrait of Pope John Paul II at the front of the church. Parishioners made the sign of the cross as they passed it last night.

Steve A. Rosenberg, Tatsha Robertson, Carolyn Y. Johnson, and James Vaznis of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Eric Ferkenhoff, Christina Pazzanese, Kaitlin Thaney, Colleen Walsh, and Joyce Pellino Crane contributed to this report. Thomas Farragher can be reached at farragher@globe.com

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