With one kiss, the pope gave Tony Melendez what other Roman Catholic officials had denied.
Born without arms after his mother took the prescribed drug Thalidomide during pregnancy, Melendez said he had been rejected from the priesthood because he was unable to deliver the Eucharist.
So Melendez learned to play the guitar with his toes and performed a song for John Paul II when he visited Los Angeles in 1987. The pope hopped down off a stage and kissed him.
“It’s more than the kiss. As a Catholic I’ve been able to start a ministry because of that moment,” Melendez said. “The ministry that flowed from that day, just by one song and a kiss … he doesn’t know how much has flowed from that. He kissed me and passed on responsibility.”
Melendez, 43, seized on his sudden fame after the kiss and began traveling, sharing his tale and his music. He hasn’t stopped – recording four solo albums. He also has a regular show in the tourist town of Branson, Mo., and is currently on tour on the East Coast.
It had been hard for him to watch the ailing pope on the news recently, Melendez said, because he couldn’t help but remember the ease with which the pontiff jumped down from the Universal Amphitheater stage and moved through the crowd toward him.
The pope quietly praised Melendez’s song, “Never Be the Same,” telling him “It sounds nice,” before returning to the stage to address him in front of the crowd of thousands.
“You are a courageous young man,” the pontiff said for all to hear. “And my wish for you is to bring hope to all the people.”
For Steven Newton, a brief connection with the pope was a life-changing event.
Newton, 44, was spending his sophomore year of college in Rome when his class was part of an audience with the pope in 1980.
Newton, from the University of Dallas, was wearing clothes similar to the pope’s security that day: a brown shirt, a tie and black pants. As the guards cleared the way for the pope, Newton’s classmates pushed him into their ranks. Then the pope passed and Newton clasped his hand.
“He holds his hand out and he grasps my hand and he looks at me and it was like getting an electric shock,” Newton said. “It was like everyone else in the room disappeared.”
Newton, a Presbyterian when he had his encounter with the pope, began studying Catholicism and converted three years later, he said.
“It was the start. I didn’t know I was meant to change faiths. It was a signal I had to do something,” he said.
Rev. Terence Hogan
The memory that sticks in Rev. Terence Hogan’s mind is watching Pope John Paul II pull aside one of the Haitian-American parishioners at the Cathedral of St. Mary during his 1987 visit to Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood.
“He was going to speak to a large group out here outside the cathedral, and they mostly spoke Creole. And he asked one of the ladies from the choir if he could just kind of talk with her for a minute to practice his Creole. He said, ‘I want to learn this better,’ ” Hogan said Sunday.
The highlight of that trip was to be an outdoor Mass in Tamiami Park in front of 250,000 people, but it was canceled after lightning struck. Witnesses at the time said the first bolt hit as the pope said: “Let us pray.”
“I remember we were walking back to the trailer behind the Mass site,” said Hogan, who was in charge of protocol during the visit. “He kept saying, ‘What about the people? What about the people?’ And then eventually, when the rain let up a little, he went outside and talked to everybody who stayed.”