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St. John’s remembers an inspiring pope

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"Even in death, may he continue to inspire," one student said in a prayer for Pope John Paul II, who died Saturday afternoon.Most of the more than 200 students, faculty and parents in St. Thomas More Church kept their heads bowed as the school's president, Rev. Donald Harrington, gave a first-person account of Rome's atmosphere during the pope's last days. Driving into St. Peter's Square "there were thousands of people standing there quietly. I felt I was in an immense church and I could feel the intensity of everyone's prayers," said Harrington, who had returned Sunday night from a business trip to St. John's Vatican campus.In his sermon, Harrington recalled his three visits with the pope. In 1989, the year he was named president of the university, Harrington met with John Paul II, who stressed the importance of Catholic American higher education. "I thought it was a little striking, the Holy Father saying this to me," Harrington said.Six years later, at a meeting with St. John's board of trustees, the pontiff shook hands with those present, saying to Andrew Bartilucci, a former dean, "Bartilucci! Finally, Italiano!" Then in 1997 a much frailer Pope congratulated the St. John's men's soccer team for winning the nationals."Thousands from all over the world could tell similar stories," Harrington said. "We have not yet begun to catch a glimpse of the impact of this man."Harrington was not the only university member graced with the patriarch's presence.Jimmy Walters, a graduate student in school counseling, remembers his moment in January 2004, when a nun friend organized the meeting.When Walters bent and kissed the pope's ring, John Paul II dropped a string of black beads into the young man's hands. "I said I loved him," said Walter at the Monday's mass, the beads still in his grip."I saw other people outside in St. Peter's Square and we were going in," he said. "And when you spotted people who had experienced the same thing I did, you saw such joy on their faces."Walters said he had reflected on that moment more and more as the pope grew weaker."That's when the memories come to life and you cherish it," he said.Angela DiLalla, a St. John's graduate and now a program coordinator for campus ministry, witnessed the religious leader hold a mass for millions in Rome in August 2000 as part of World Youth Day."It was almost biblical," she said.Paula Migliore, also a university graduate who works in the campus ministry, described her visit with the pontiff on another trip to Rome."He makes you feel it's his privilege to see you," she said.Asked after the service about the pope's replacement, Harrington said, "many times we try to be prophets, to predict who the next one will be. But our god is a god of surprises. He surprised us with John Paul II and he might surprise us again."Reach reporter Zach Patberg by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 155.

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