By Megan Mcilroy and I-Wei J.Chang
WASHINGTON – Even after 10 years, Ramon Ranco says it is still hard to believe he actually dined with Pope John Paul II.
But the Baltimore resident on Friday vividly recalled the day the pope ate lunch at Our Daily Bread, a soup kitchen, during a 1995 visit to Baltimore that included a packed Mass at Camden Yards.
“It was something I never dreamed,” said Ranco, 42. “It was incredible.”
Like many Catholics in Maryland, Ranco shared memories of the 84-year-old pope Friday and prayed for him as he clung to life in the Vatican.
Prayers are exactly what the pope needs, said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, who asked people of all faiths to pray for the ailing pontiff Thursday, when news of his sharply worsening condition was first reported.
“We also do not want him to suffer,” McCarrick said, who added that the pope “has not been a stranger to suffering.”
McCarrick praised the pontiff for a “long and powerful papacy” and said his “true mark” was his kindness and love for others.
“A lot of people love the holy father,” he said.
That was evident late Friday afternoon, when a small group of Catholics gathered outside the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., to pray for the pontiff. They laid flowers at the foot of the pope’s statue in a resting area outside the cultural center, then formed a circle of prayer.
Jim Moriarty, 47, a lawyer from Bethesda, came to the cultural center with his wife, his two children, his mother-in-law, his parents and their priest. Moriarty decided to visit the center after learning of the pope’s deteriorating condition.
“He is a wonderful light in a very dark world,” said Moriarty, who met the pope in Rome in 1987 when he was on the Catholic University Board of Regents. He said the meeting was an emotional one.
Patricia Baker-Simon, 40, an attorney from Mitchellville, brought her husband, three daughters and her husband’s aunt to the center Friday. Baker-Simon said she had been planning to visit the center, but that learning of the pope’s condition made the experience “even more profound.”
She remembered her excitement when the pope visited her native Detroit years ago.
“It was a huge celebration. The African-American community came out to support him,” Baker-Simon said. “It was a fond memory and a great celebratory time.”
Her husband, Kyle Simon, said, “I hope he doesn’t suffer very long and will soon be in paradise.”
Daughter Mia, 11, also praised the pope.
“The pope has been a great role model for the people by traveling all around the world and showing that everyone is loved.”
It was the pope’s trip to Baltimore that changed the way Ranco looked at work and family.
Ranco, a Mexican immigrant, was one of about 20 people who lunched with the pope at Our Daily Bread, a soup kitchen managed by Catholic Charities. Ranco, his wife Alejandra, and their two sons were chosen to represent Baltimore’s Hispanic population at the lunch.
Ranco said it was “incredible” to sit at the same table with Pope John Paul II, who specifically asked for the same meal everyone else got. When they shook hands, Ranco asked for the pope’s blessing.
“I was not married yet . . . I was still illegal and I could not go back to Mexico,” Ranco said. “I asked him to bless me.”
Before the meeting, Ranco said he was working seven days a week. But after talking with the pope, he realized, “I need time for my family.”
Ranco said his sons, now 16 and 14, were too young when they met the pope to understand how special a papal blessing is, but his oldest son has since talked about meeting with pontiff again.
“My big child (is) always thinking we can see him again,” said Ranco, adding that the whole family was saddened by news of the pope’s failing health.
-30- CNS 04-01-05