Tahoe Catholics recall the pontiff | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Tahoe Catholics recall the pontiff

Susan Wood

St. Theresa Catholic Church's seminarian, Derek LaBranch, meets Pope John Paul II in May 2004 in Rome.

Clutching the rosary he had when he met him last year, St. Theresa Catholic Church seminarian Derek LaBranch said Sunday during church service that he was in awe of meeting the late Pope John Paul II. The pope died midday Saturday, rocking the world and prompting up to 80,000 people to gather at St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican.

Even for a man of the cloth prepared to be ordained as a priest in two years, LaBranch, 26, was struck by an up-close-and-personal visit in Rome with the only pope he’s known. Last May, he had two such meetings.

“The first time I couldn’t speak,” he said. “The second time, I told him: ‘Thank you for your leadership.’ What struck me was his eyes. He looked at me, and I’m sure I looked overwhelmed. I knew he was a deep, spiritual man,” LaBranch said after St. Theresa’s Sunday service.

St. Theresa’s Rev. Mark Richards said he doesn’t “expect a whole lot of change” from the Vatican in the next pope, but that each one “brings his own style.” John Paul’s was known as carrying on a love of people.

“They felt they knew him,” he said.

During the service, Richards cited the stark contrast of two very different deaths – John Paul and right-to-life symbol Terri Schiavo – as those that “can teach us a lot” through life’s challenges.

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With the candles flickering as a sign of hope, the priest reassured his flock yesterday that the late pope is in a better place, celebrating a new day in heaven. He acknowledged that although the parishioners “would be deeply saddened” by the loss there is an upside.

“I think most of us feel a sense of peace,” he said.

Marie Bellu, who’s practiced Catholicism “since birth to age 75,” agreed with that assessment. She’s grown to have a strong connection with the long-serving pontiff.

“He was very out-reaching. Most popes before were very tied to the Vatican,” she said.

And he may have fought to stay alive through Easter. Bellu found it ironic that he died on the holy week.

“I think he was a fighter,” she added.