By Michael Morton
In Queens, the nation's most ethnically diverse county, non-Catholics from many different countries joined the church's followers in mourning the loss of the pontiff, who died Saturday at the age of 84.Special masses were scheduled in the borough Friday to coincide with the funeral in Rome of the Polish-born patriarch, who visited Queens in 1979 to conduct mass at Shea Stadium and again in 1995 for a service at Aqueduct Race Track. There were also additional masses throughout the week, at parishes large and small. On 194th Street in Auburndale, a thousand worshipers gathered Monday night at St. Kevin's, one of the biggest Catholic churches in northern Queens, and remembered the pope as his photo sat on an easel on the altar. And at St. John's University, Father Donald Harrington, the school president, held a service Monday afternoon attended by 250 faculty and students. He had just returned from a business trip to the university's Vatican campus and said the atmosphere there was one of intense quiet.”We cannot let this special moment leave us unchanged,” Harrington said at the mass.Peter Vallone Jr., the former Council speaker from Astoria, planned to accompany Mayor Michael Bloomberg as part of the New York City delegation to the pope's funeral in Rome.John Paul II, who had suffered from Parkinson's disease for a decade, succumbed to heart and kidney failure after developing a urinary tract infection last Thursday that led to a fever and unstable blood pressure. He had been hospitalized twice since Feb. 1, but with his latest bout of illness insisted on dying in his own bed.”I'm glad he's at peace,” Angie Tantillo of Ridgewood said as she entered the neighborhood's St. Matthias church on Catalpa Avenue for mass Saturday night, hours after the pope's death. “He's suffered enough.”Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Brooklyn Diocese, which represents Queens, said “by the way he accepted the suffering caused by the illnesses that preceded his death, our Holy Father taught us about the dignity of life, the dignity of the human person, even to one's final breath. He has shown the world how to die.”Before his death, John Paul II, a charismatic and vigorous leader, had developed a reputation as the People's Pope. And with a 26-year reign, one of the longest in papal history, he had time to leave an indelible impression on the faithful and to develop a connection with them.”They're very hurt because they lost a family member,” St. Matthias head usher Diego Adranga said, directing a crowd twice as large as on a usual Saturday despite a torrential downpour outside. Adranga noted that parishioners had been coming to the church for days, some sobbing quietly, others consumed with grief.Particularly upset were the Polish congregants, an expanding neighborhood presence whose life in Ridgewood centers largely around St. Matthias. John Paul II was born Karol Wojtyla in Poland and became a hero in his country after being selected the first non-Italian pope in centuries. A statue of the pontiff sits in front of the Ridgewood church, and its outstretched arms welcomed parishioners as they placed candles and flowers at its base Saturday.”It's very special for me,” Lukasz Platek, 27, of Ridgewood said about the pope's death as he stood in the back of St. Matthias for mass. Platek was born in Krakow, Poland, where the future pope spent much of his early adulthood and was later named archbishop. He connected the pope's death to the passing of his grandmother earlier in the year.”I feel like I lose my other grandparent,” he said, appearing shell-shocked.After a surprise selection by his fellow cardinals in 1978, Wojtyla, henceforth Pope John Paul II, guided the church with a firm hand, providing direction after the reforms of Vatican II in the 1960s and re-energizing the faithful. He spoke out against communist regimes in Eastern Europe, contributing to their downfall, and brought together various world religions for the first time, notably asking Jews for forgiveness for past sins committed by Catholics and apologizing for the church not doing more to save people from the Holocaust.”As a Jew, I especially remember Pope John Paul II for his helping to ease religious tensions and for improving relations between the Catholic church and the Jewish community,” U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Bayside) said. “Pope John Paul II also represented something that transcended Catholicism. Just seeing him and being in his presence-even if one were not of the Catholic faith-made one realize that he was a very special and charismatic man.”The pope also drew praise from Bloomberg, who said “his unconditional love for all people brought nations, races and religions closer together, healing old wounds and celebrating common ground.”But while John Paul II took progressive stances on securing freedom, bringing peace and ending poverty, he also reinforced the traditional church doctrine banning abortion, contraceptives, the consecration of female priests and marriage for the clergy. In the borough, some felt he left a conflicting legacy.”His work on the social issues was really very marvelous,” said Carol Powell of Glendale outside St. Matthias, nevertheless noting that she supported women becoming priests and clergy marrying if they so chose.John Paul II was also known for his worldwide travels, and he performed mass in 1979 for a packed Shea Stadium. Father Richard McCormack, the head of the largely Polish St. Josaphat's in Bayside, recalled the event Tuesday. “He came in from behind the scoreboard,” McCormack said. “It had been raining very hard that day, but as soon as he came in, the rain stopped and the sun came out. Everybody remembers that.”The pope also visited South Ozone Park in 1995 for a three-hour mass at Aqueduct Racetrack attended by 75,000 people. “It was a very moving day,” said Nancy Kehoe of South Ozone Park Sunday morning as she left mass at her neighborhood's Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the host parish for the event. “We were very honored.”Kehoe, who won tickets to the mass in a diocese lottery, said John Paul was “warm” and “very engaging” as he spoke about the need for family values in the United States and the fight against poverty in developing countries.”He was the People's Pope-he made you feel connected,” she said. “There was no distance between Rome and the United States.”In the next several weeks, 117 cardinals from around the world will gather in Rome to chose a new pope, issuing white smoke from the Vatican when they have done so. Until then, Rev. Donald Berran at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where confessions have risen since John Paul II's death, said he is telling his parishioners “to make our attitude one of gratitude for having him for so long.”And at St. Matthias Saturday, Deacon John Sands said in his homily “the church is all of us who are here. Let's go forth from this place in a spirit of joy.”Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.