Mary Sacchitella was a teenager when Pope John Paul II came to Boston in 1979. Though she would not understand his legacy until much later, she felt his aura immediately that day.
“It was just like a magnet,” said the 54-year-old Scituate resident, who also witnessed John Paul’s 2011 beatification in Rome. “You could just feel his presence, his holiness.”
Now, decades later, she has come to see him once more, this time in the form of a small glass vial holding his blood.
Sacchitella was among hundreds of Catholics who visited Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross Saturday to venerate the relic of St. John Paul II, whose 26-year-long pontificate encompassed key moments in history and helped define the modern incarnation of the church.
“St. John Paul II had a very close connection not only to people in Boston, but people worldwide,” said Archdiocese of Boston spokesman Terry Donilon. “It’s an opportunity for people to pray to him and continue to have that connection to him. . . . If it brings them an inch, a mile closer to the church, that’s good.”
The relic, a glass ampoule of John Paul’s blood mounted in an ornate reliquary resembling a fiery golden halo, was given to the Knights of Columbus in 2011 by John Paul’s longtime personal secretary.
The fraternal Catholic group is taking the relic on a tour of several East Coast cities in part to promote its Washington shrine to the recently canonized saint.
The tour’s start in Boston is a nod to John Paul’s October 1979 visit here, when the famously well-traveled pontiff began his first trip to the United States as pope by leading 400,000 people in a rain-soaked but electrifying Mass on Boston Common.
Donilon, then an Emerson College student, remembers watching John Paul’s procession pass his Beacon Street dormitory.
“I was 20 feet from his car, and everyone standing next to me agreed they felt like he looked right at them,” Donilon said.
In the brightly lit lower cathedral in the South End, about 100 people sat in pews, facing a small altar covered in delicate white cloth.
The reliquary, studded with 12 red stones representing Christ’s apostles, sat on the table, flanked by candles and a gold-framed portrait of John Paul.
The room was quiet except for the shuffling of feet. Pilgrims, most old enough to remember John Paul’s 1978 election to the papacy, kneeled before the relic, heads bowed; some handed rosaries and medallions to a minder who carefully touched them to the reliquary.
The scene harked back to the Middle Ages, when the Catholic tradition of venerating relics blossomed — a marked contrast for a pope whose image and message became ubiquitous worldwide through television broadcasts that captured his every move.
“Just being in the presence of anything that belongs to John Paul II is like being in Rome again,” Sacchitella said. “Like a pilgrimage.”
Childhood friends Liz Smiddy and Christine Heneghan, now in their 50s, also came to see the relic. Both had attended John Paul’s Mass on the Common as teenagers in Dorchester.
“The chills that you get are just amazing,” said Smiddy, 53, her eyes filling with tears. “You’re probably only going to see it once in a lifetime.”
Heneghan said John Paul’s legacy was one of uniting people.
“He just wasn’t afraid to put his hands on people,” she said. “Here, you feel like you’ve been touched by him.”
The two agreed John Paul’s legacy remains solid, despite the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the church during his tenure.
They are not alone in revering John Paul, a consistently popular figure throughout his papacy, even among non-Catholics. About 86 percent of all Americans had a favorable opinion of him in a 1980 Gallup poll, the same proportion as in a 1998 poll. John Paul’s popularity among Americans dipped during the clergy sex abuse scandal, to 61 percent in 2002, before rebounding to 78 percent just before his April 2005 death. The 2005 Gallup poll also found 67 percent of Catholics thought he would go down as one of the greatest popes in history.
Sister Inga Kvassayova, of Slovakia, said that when she knelt before the relic, she prayed for the John Paul II Center in the saint’s native Poland. John Paul is widely credited with helping to spark and foster the country’s Solidarity movement, and in turn, the crumbling of communism in Europe.
“He was the one who inspired people to come together, to fight against evil, against communism,” said Kvassayova. “He has the gift of encouraging people, of bringing them hope and peace. He’s a saint and, at the same time, he was very human.”
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