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Pope's Visit a Touchstone for These L.A. Kids

At a Catholic school, many were inspired for a lifetime, though some have left the church.

April 07, 2005|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

Some rarely divulge details of the encounter. "I consider it more of a private matter than anything else," says Joseph Gonzalez, now 30.

Others delight in talking about it. "Oh, gosh, I tell everybody," says Guido Nunez, also 30. "That's my highlight."

It was on Sept. 16, 1987, that 21 children at Immaculate Conception grammar school in the Pico Union neighborhood -- sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders -- met and talked with Pope John Paul II during his visit to Los Angeles.

Meeting the pope did not guard all of them against estrangement from the Roman Catholic Church. It did not keep them from crisis or from questioning.

But as several of the former students looked back this week, they said the meeting did bestow an unwavering sense of connection -- not necessarily with the church but with its charismatic father.

Even those who strayed say they believe they have stayed true to the essence of Catholicism because they met the embodiment of Catholicism.

"I'll never forget my father said, 'You're very fortunate to have hugged Jesus Christ,' " recalls Lorena Vega, 31. "He said, 'I absolutely believe he has the spirit of Jesus Christ. You were one of the fortunate ones.' " Tears well in her eyes.

The pope is still a presence at Immaculate Conception -- then and now an overwhelmingly Latino school, not far from downtown Los Angeles.

"I pass by his picture every day when I come into the office," says Mary Ann Murphy, 51, who has been the principal since shortly before the papal visit. "His being with the children was just an awesome experience."

For Vega, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at the time, the moment of awe came at an assembly of all the school's students. A deeply religious child, she began sobbing uncontrollably as the pontiff bade them farewell.

When he passed Vega, John Paul embraced her.

"I remember he said, 'I love you. We will always be together through prayer.' Now that I'm an adult, I value it a lot more. I understand it a lot more."

Vega says she will never forget his eyes. "They were gorgeous blue."

A decade later, Vega got to see John Paul again at a youth pilgrimage in France. This time she was one of about a million.

"He said, 'Do not be afraid to evangelize,' " she recalls.

"At that time I did not know if I wanted to get married or be a nun," Vega says. But John Paul had told the group that they could be apostles of faith no matter their vocation, and Vega took those words to heart. She met her husband that year and they now have three children, ages 1, 3, and 4. She is pregnant with her fourth. She was married at Immaculate Conception Church and had her children baptized there.

"To society, I'm basically seen as a nobody," says Vega, who graduated from a Catholic girls' high school and says she spent three years at Mount St. Mary's College. "Yet I value what I'm doing. Not only am I committed to transmitting my faith to my children, but I'm committed to bringing them up well in the world."

Vega takes comfort in knowing that as she bucks the tide of women having careers and fewer children, so did John Paul buck liberal trends in his staunch promotion of conservative doctrine.

"I feel blessed; I feel the pope's influence," she says. "If you believe God is in your life, he will provide."

But while Vega's encounter with John Paul deepened her faith and her connection to the church, others found that the pope set a standard his church failed to meet.

Lorena Mull was 11 when she asked the pope about forgiving his enemies. "A very interesting question," he told her.

"I don't remember it in that great detail," says Mull, 29, laughing. She graduated from Woodbury University in Burbank, lives in Mount Washington with her fiance and works for an electrical engineer.

"I still consider myself Catholic," she says. Meeting the pope "played a big role in that."

Yet she hasn't attended Mass for two years. For most of her young life, she was dutiful. But as she grew older, she questioned church doctrines and found her local priests wanting.

When she was 13, a priest to whom she had told her troubles in a confessional betrayed her confidence in a later conversation with her and her mother, she recalls. "It was nothing very bad, but I was so embarrassed."

Another time, she says, she watched Los Angeles Archbishop Roger M. Mahony wordlessly walk past a barefoot homeless man who had approached him for help. "I thought that was so ungodly," she says.

"I was around a lot of clergy, and they weren't as holy as I expected them to be," she says.

But she believes in the basic morality gleaned from her years of Catholic school. "In my everyday life, I still respect others and try to treat everyone else well and strive to be a good person."

With an affectionate chuckle, Mull says her devout, Mexican-born Catholic mother frowns upon Mull's mix of Catholicism with a lifestyle that departs from the church's norms.

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