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For one Buffalo priest, the death of Pope John Paul II marks the end of a special entree into the world of the Vatican that few clergy ever know.

Gone now are the papal lunches and dinners.

There will be no more unique gifts from the pontiff.

And getting friends into the Vatican for a papal audience with the new pope will be near impossible.

Monsignor Ronald Sciera, retired pastor of Most Precious Blood Parish in Buffalo, said he treasures all of the experiences he has enjoyed over the years due to John Paul II.

The pontiff in 1996 named Sciera as a member of the board of the John Paul II Foundation, a position that brought the priest regularly to Rome for foundation meetings.

Sciera will continue with the foundation. It's unlikely, however, that he'll greet the next pope in person, let alone share a meal with him.

"If it's in God's plan, maybe I'll meet the next Holy Father, or at least see him from a distance. But you can never repeat beautiful experiences," he said.

Sciera arrived here Wednesday and woke at 4:30 a.m. Thursday to get into St. Peter's Basilica for a viewing of the pope's body at 7 a.m. He was able to sit inside the roped area next to the pope and pray for a half hour.

He then concelebrated an 8 a.m. Mass in the basilica with more than 400 other priests. Another priest of the Diocese of Buffalo, the Rev. Joseph Porpiglia, pastor of Holy Cross and St. Patrick parishes in Salamanca, concelebrated a 5 p.m. Mass.

"I was as fortunate as all get out. It was a wonderful honor," said Porpiglia, who was in Rome on vacation.

He estimated about 700 priests concelebrated at the back altar of the basilica, behind the area where the pope was lying in state. Porpiglia sat in the first row in front of the altar and was asked to carry the chalice and ciborium during Communion.

Sciera's history with the pontiff dates back many years. As a seminarian in France in 1957, he visited Poland under Communist rule and befriended several Polish priests. Later, he helped bring a young Polish priest named the Rev. Edward Nowak to the United States, and one of Sciera's parishes in Buffalo helped fund Nowak's graduate studies. Sciera and Nowak stayed in regular contact over the years. Nowak eventually became close friends with Stanislaw Dziwisz, who was John Paul II's secretary and is now an archbishop. And Nowak himself was a driver and assistant to Karol Wojtyla -- the pope's birth name -- when Wojtyla came to Rome on church business prior to his papal election. Nowak is now an archbishop in Poland.

Sciera recalled a letter he received from Nowak in August 1978, in which Nowak mentioned a rumor going around Rome that Wojtyla would make a good pope. Sciera remembered laughing at the thought then. Most Poles and Polish-Americans thought it impossible at the time, considering the 450-plus year run of Italians at the papal helm.

"I didn't keep the letter," said Sciera.

Sciera said he last spoke with the pope at a dinner in January involving the foundation trustees. He received a call from a Vatican official last Friday, in which the official told him the pope's health was failing quickly.

On Wednesday, Sciera toured Rome, pointing out some of the sites away from the Vatican where the pontiff had been a regular visitor as a Polish bishop.

One area included street names such as Vicolo Dei Polacchi and Via Dei Polacchi, reminders of the Polish section of Rome from the Middle Ages.

A pet project of the pope was born in the area, as well. The foundation helped pave the way for Hosanium Palace, a hotel designed to provide affordable lodging for visitors to the Vatican from Poland.

Sciera received a special priest's stole from John Paul II, including his signature, last November for his 70th birthday. At the January dinner, the pope was still as engaged and lucid as ever with his guests, Sciera said.

And today, he'll likely have a spot set aside for the funeral. He has a letter from the Office of the Secretary of State for entry into the basilica.

Sciera always knew his special place in Rome could end at any moment. But he won't miss it.

"I always thought it was a gift to begin with, the gift of someone's friendship. I had a great friendship with the Holy Father when he was alive," he said. "But as I prayed before him, I realized he's still my friend. There's nothing to miss. He can do more for me in heaven then he can do on earth."


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