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BISHOP, FOLLOWERS LAUD POPE AS GREAT LEADER

From the pulpit to the pews in St. Joseph's Cathedral, Pope John Paul II was recalled Friday as a hero dedicated to spreading peace in a troubled world.

Bishop Edward U. Kmiec and about 175 Catholics gathered for a noon Mass to pray for the 84-year-old pope who was clinging to life.

And though there was a sense of mourning, recollections of the pope's many accomplishments, from his pivotal role in the downfall of communism to his promotion of a culture of life, gave way to an underlying peace.

"In short, he was the most significant leader of our times. I'd say he was the man of the century, and at some time in the future, he may get another title, Pope John Paul the Great," Kmiec said, explaining that only two other popes in the history of the church have been given that title.

The bishop said he personally regarded the pope as a father, friend and brother, recalling visits with him at the Vatican, where they sometimes spoke in Polish.

"Every time I went there, there was such charisma. You walked away after talking to the pope unsure of what was said," Kmiec said, holding in his hand a cross that was given to him by the pope.

Richard Solecki of Depew had similar experiences.

Solecki, president of the local chapter of the Polish American Congress, has met the pope 19 times, and remembers the pope's piercing blue eyes, and how he treated all he met with the same respect.

In recent days, Solecki has been carrying a rosary the pope gave him in 1983.

"I've been glued to the TV like everyone in the world is, to some extent," Solecki said Friday evening. "It's been a moving experience, knowing you shook that man's hand and kissed his ring. I truly believe this man is a saint."

Despite the pontiff's grave condition this week, John Paul II sent a letter of condolence after learning of the passing of Bishop Edward D. Head. The letter arrived Friday morning.

This spurred Kmiec to recall a story involving the pope and Head in happier times when they chatted at a gathering of bishops.

"Brother bishops came up to Bishop Head and asked him what the pope had said. Bishop Head said, 'The pope told me I'm doing a great job,' " Kmiec recalled with a smile. "The pope made you feel like a brother."

He described John Paul II as a spiritual leader who put to use tools that no other pope in history had access to.

"He made over 100 trips around the world. He took advantage of the times with the electronic media. He used his ministry well," Kmiec said. "He was a great communicator."

But perhaps the greatest tributes came from people who took time out of their work day to pray at Mass for the pope's soul.

"I think the world is losing one of its greatest leaders," said Mark Dietrick of Orchard Park. "In the backdrop of what's been going on the past couple weeks here with Terri Schiavo, the pope has gone out with profound dignity."

Mark Gomez of Buffalo said he will remember the pope for his tireless efforts at bringing people together in times of conflict.

"With all of the wars, famines and atrocities, he's taken steps to try and bring peace around the world for the good of people," Gomez said.

Remembering when John Paul II was shot on May 13, 1981, Diane Tardibuono of Buffalo said it was the same day her son, Anthony, was born.

"I'm feeling very emotional. I have a strong affection for the pope. He's like my life," Tardibuono said. "My son was born on the day he was shot and saved by the Blessed Mother and so I dedicated my son to the Blessed Mother."

Over at Corpus Christi Catholic Church, near the Broadway Market on Buffalo's East Side, James Przybyl recalled how much pride the pope brought to the Polish community.

"No one would ever think a son of Poland would ascend to the papacy," said Przybyl of Buffalo.

Mary Ann Ingelfinger of Orchard Park said the pope lived a good and long life.

"He made an effort to make the world a better place. It will be interesting to see who comes after him," Ingelfinger said.

Of the pope's final journey from life to death, Kmiec said inspiration could be found in the pope's last book, "Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way:"

"When 'His Hour' had come, Jesus said to those who were with him in the Garden of Gethsemane, to Peter, James and John, His closest disciples: 'Rise, let us be on our way.' Not only He must 'be on his way' to fulfill His Father's will: they, too, must go with Him."

Kmiec said he found comfort in what the pope wrote.

News Staff Reporter Jay Rey contributed to this article.

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

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