Americans Fill Cathedrals to Pray

For Americans, Pope John Paul II (search) seems in many ways to be one of them. Americans converged at Masses to offer prayers, light candles and reminisce about the ailing pope, who visited their country more than any other pontiff.

"For the American Catholic community he was an extraordinary gift because, in a certain sense, he was American," said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick (search) after a midday Mass on Friday in downtown Washington.

The pope "enjoyed people, he had a good sense of humor, he was humble — all the things that America likes in its leaders," McCarrick said.

The Vatican (search) said the pope was near death as dawn broke Saturday, his breathing shallow and his heart and kidneys failing.

"It's more than just being sad. It's a pain in the heart," said Andrea Sandoval, 36, at historic Mission Dolores in San Francisco, where the pope in 1987 cradled 4-year-old AIDS (search) victim Brendan O'Rourke.

Brendan, who contracted the disease from a blood transfusion when he was an infant, died in 1990 of an AIDS-related illness.

"He has been in our towns. He has driven in our streets. He has been with us and our people," said Bishop Joseph A. Galante (search) of Camden, N.J., during a special Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

Raymond Flynn, a former Boston mayor who was U.S. ambassador to the Vatican from 1993 to 1997, recalled that during diplomatic functions the pope would look at him and say:

"Raymond, is it still raining in Boston?" a reference to the steady rain that greeted John Paul II's 1979 trip to Boston. The pope's legacy will be his impact on young people, Flynn said.

"He talked truth to them. He told them oftentimes what they didn't want to hear," Flynn said. "He would tell the young people don't be afraid to do what's right, not what is fashionable or trendy."

Among those gathering at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles was City Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose mother was among those presenting gifts to the pope at Dodger Stadium in 1987.

Dick Gale, a retired sociology professor from Laguna Woods, also was at the cathedral — though he called himself a spiritualist, not a Catholic.

The pope, Gale said, "was a very strong and consistent voice for peace, throughout so many conflicts."

In New York City, Cardinal Edward Egan (search) offered a prayer for the pope during a morning Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral; he said John Paul was facing his suffering with "great courage."

After worship, Egan called the pontiff "an extraordinary hero for our times."

Benito Lerma, a civil engineer in New York, recalled encounters with the pope during two of his five visits to the United States: a 1979 stop during his first papal trip to America, preaching to crowds in Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden, and a whirlwind 1995 tour, when he held huge public Masses in Giants Stadium, Central Park and the Aqueduct racetrack. The pope last visited the United States in 1999.

Lerma remembered jogging through Central Park and getting an unexpected glimpse of the pope. "He drove by," said Lerma. "I paused and was thrilled to have seen him, even if it was just the top of his head."

Catholics in the nation's capital flocked to the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center.

"People are looking to connect," said Dennis D. McManus, the director of the center's Intercultural Forum. "For many, many people he's the only pope they can remember."

"This man's gift was outreach," McManus added.

President Bush and his wife were among those praying for the pope, according to White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

"He's in our thoughts and prayers at this time," McClellan said. "The outpouring of love and concern from so many — including millions of Americans — is a testimony to his greatness."

In downtown Cincinnati, parishioner Emily Schinner, 83, prayed for the pope at a midday Mass at St. Xavier church.

"I hate to see him go, but I know God wants him because he did his job," Schinner said. "I hope we get another fellow who's half as good."

In Chicago, Mark Barazi, owner of a store in a Polish enclave, recalled the pope's stop in the city in 1979. He said the pontiff, along with Ronald Reagan, was pivotal in helping bring democracy and freedom in Eastern Europe.

"He did help the demise of the socialist movement, so he's obviously made a major contribution on the political front also," he said.