LITTLE FALLS -- A seminarian on his way to study in Jerusalem, Father Mark Innocenti boarded an early morning train to a summer home on Rome's south side for a meeting he would treasure years later.
Innocenti, Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Little Falls, wondered what he would say to Pope John Paul II when they met. He was one of 30 people at the Holy Father's home for a private Mass. The pope shook their hands, gave them a rosary and blessed Innocenti.
"It's really a beautiful experience," Innocenti said Friday. "I treasure that. When he came, it's like time paused."
Photographs in Innocenti's office commemorate the meeting in the fall of 1997.
Friday, Innocenti was among other Roman Catholics keeping vigil by television and waiting for reports on the pontiff's failing health. The aroma of an Italian dinner cooking in the kitchen spread throughout the rectory.
With the pope said to be near death late Friday afternoon, Catholics were asked to measure his nearly 27-year-long papacy. Pope John Paul II is the Catholic church's third longest reigning pope.
"I think he'll go down as one of the great popes," Innocenti said. "He has touched so many people. I think as time goes on we'll really hear more about what he did."
Innocenti pointed to the pope's world travels and ability to speak a multitude of languages, which is estimated at about 28. He said the pope's legacy will nourish the people in years to come.
The Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls prayed for the pope during their morning Mass Friday. In what was described as a subdued day, they prayed for a peaceful death for the pope.
Sister Beatrice Eichten, community minister and president, said many of the 75 sisters at the campus are older than the 84-year-old pontiff and they understand the aging process. Eichten was looking at a photo of a young Pope John Paul II hiking in the mountains.
She said with the pope's infirmity and age, he remained mentally strong. His willingness to be in public through it all bore witness to the value of suffering, Eichten said.
"He's always been a strong and vigorous man," Eichten said, noting the transformation to an older, frail man who continued to speak in a strong voice was powerful.
"He's been an extraordinary champion for human rights," Eichten said, noting the pope's efforts on behalf of the poor and marginalized people. Eichten said across the world many of those poor are women.
Eichten was in Rome last May. She was in St. Peter's Square and saw the Holy Father in his popemobile. She was joined by people in their wedding clothes seeking blessings and children who came hoping to read the pontiff a poem. They were all so excited to see the pope, Eichten said.
Friday, Eichten was preparing for a previously planned trip to Rome. Eichten is vice president for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. They had asked if the trip should be canceled because of the pope's failing health, but the Vatican said the offices would remain open.
She said this is a historic time to be there to see the outpouring of love for the pontiff.
"I get very aware of the universal church when I'm there," Eichten said of being at the Vatican. "The pope for me is an expression of a broader church. It's a whole range of people who share a common faith."
Deacon Roger Marks, Brainerd Area Catholic Churches, described the mood Friday as "anxious, pensive and anticipatory."
Marks said his prayers for the pope were that "God will be merciful to him, take him into His arms and welcome him in eternal paradise."
The Vatican reported the pope in his own last hours wanted to hear about Jesus' crucifixion.
"He's looking at the death of Jesus and wanting Jesus to be a model for his death," Marks said. "We should all desire to die as Jesus died, with good intentions in our hearts."
Asked what the pope represents to the people, Marks said: "He showed people the love that Jesus had for people.
"The last 40 years haven't been the prettiest (for the Catholic Church in the United States), but John Paul II has taken the church through crisis and we've come out stronger. He struggled his whole life to create peace in the world."
(Dispatch staff writer Heidi Lake contributed to this story.)
RENEE RICHARDSON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.