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A Star of the Papal Tour : Disabled Guitarist Moves Many to Tears

September 17, 1987|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

On Tuesday, Tony Melendez played the guitar for the Pope. Melendez, who is armless, played with his feet, just as he does each Sunday for Mass at his parish church.

On Wednesday, Melendez, 25, was a media star. About 9 a.m. the first of four television crews arrived at the family home in Chino. "They came and woke me up," Melendez said. When he checked his answering machine, 11 calls had already come in.

But yesterday, Melendez was not thinking of overnight stardom. "I don't consider myself professional yet," he said. He was reflecting, instead, on his own little miracle, on having been singled out by Pope John Paul II in the most emotional moment of a program staged before young people at Universal Amphitheatre.

"I was amazed," Melendez said. "It was a beautiful experience."

Melendez's performance at the end of the Pope's teleconference with young Catholics in four cities, including 6,000 at the Amphitheater, left many in the audience in tears.

It prompted the Pope himself to climb down from his stage and make his way over to the smaller platform on which Melendez had sung, a guitar at his feet and a microphone before him.

The Pope, who had led a standing ovation at the end of the song, reached up to embrace Melendez, who had to stoop to accept a hug and a kiss from John Paul.

"Tony, you are truly a courageous young man," the Pope told him. "You are giving hope to all of us. My wish is to continue giving this hope to all other people."

After the Pope stepped back up on his stage, with an assist from some young people in the audience, he turned back toward the young singer, held his hands in the air and proclaimed, "Tony, Tony."

Melendez gazed back at him with tears glistening in his eyes.

Earlier, Melendez and other participants had been instructed to stay seated until the Pope had left. In the drama of the moment, as he played, Melendez said, "he and I were looking at each other . . . I was so excited. I wanted to go to him. But then he came to me . . . "

He cannot recall the Pope's exact words, he said, but the pontiff told him, "Tony, what you're doing, keep doing it. Keep giving hope to people. Keep singing. Keep ministering."

To Melendez, Pope John Paul II is "beautiful, humble, soft. He says a lot with few words."

Melendez's family (his father is deceased) was not there for his big moment.

"They all had to work," he explained. But his brother, two sisters and his mother, Sara, a cook in a Montclair guest home, were "rooting me on, watching on TV," he said.

Melendez, who was born armless after his mother took thalidomide prescribed by a doctor in her native Nicaragua, had been contacted last month to come to what he called a "semi-audition" in Los Angeles after being recommended by someone in the San Bernardino diocese.

Performing publicly is not new to him. He plays each Sunday for 10:30 a.m. Mass at his parish church, Our Lady of Guadalupe in Chino, and for 5 p.m. Mass at St. John the Baptist in Baldwin Park.

"I sing whenever I get called," he said, usually for church or youth groups.

A 1980 Chino High School graduate, he is working toward certification as a youth minister in summer courses at Incarnate College in San Antonio, Tex. He had wanted to be a priest, but was turned down because of his handicap.

"I pretty much do everything a normal person would do," Melendez said. "Once around me, people get over the fear of meeting someone with no arms."

When he was a child, he was fitted with artificial arms but he had little patience with them--"I could do so much more using my feet."

One thing he learned to do was to play the guitar.

His parish priest, Father Dominic De Pasquale, agreed. "We don't ever think of Tony as a handicapped person." Sometimes, he said, when he is offering Communion, he finds himself "kind of waiting for Tony to put his hand out."

He told of a youth retreat where Melendez and other participants were blessing one another, tracing the sign of the cross with Holy water on upturned palms.

"Tony was next to me," said Father De Pasquale. "The dish of Holy water was being passed down and when it came to Tony, a beautiful young lady knelt down and traced the sign of the cross on his foot. Then she kissed his foot.

"Tony lifted up his foot and dipped his big toe in the dish and traced the sign of the cross on the palms of the person next to him. It was very moving."

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