SHAMOKIN - The Rev. Martin Kobos, pastor of Mother Cabrini Church, was captivated by a rare private audience with Pope John Paul II 12 years ago and described it as the "highlight of his priesthood."

The personable and witty reverend recalled that special meeting with the pope in October 2002 at the Vatican, during which the pontiff presented him with a black rosary, briefly conversed in Polish and gave him a blessing.

"I was literally speechless when I met Pope John Paul II," he said. "It was an extremely moving and touching experience. There was such an aura about the man and you could see the strength he possessed by the look in his eyes. I was just in awe, and I'm proud to say I shook hands with a saint."

The once-in-a-lifetime experience for Kobos was arranged by the Rev. Marion Tolczyk, a friend of the pontiff who served as Minister Provincial of the Franciscan Friars at the time. Kobos said Tolczyk served as his high school principal and English teacher at St. Francis High School in Athol Springs, N.Y., near Buffalo.

Kobos, who was in charge of the Franciscan Mission Association in Ellicott City, Md., accompanied Tolczyk on a trip to Ghana, West Africa, in 2002 to celebrate the Franciscans' 25th anniversary of mission work in the impoverished country.

Upon their return from Africa, Kobos said they stopped in Rome and were granted a private audience with the ailing pontiff.

"Father Marion had known the pope since he was an archbishop and cardinal," Kobos said. "Pope John Paul II had participated in a Polish religious radio program known as the 'Father Justin Rosary Hour' that Father Marion coordinated. Since he knew him personally, Father Marion had a lot of connections with the pope that allowed us to meet him."

Kobos said a couple from Chicopee, Mass., who were close friends with Tolcyzk and celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, accompanied them on their meeting.

"We had a rendezvous with Father Tolcyzk's friends and their family at the Vatican," he said. "We were all escorted by the Swiss guards to the papal apartments and eventually to the pope's private chapel, where he celebrated Mass."

After celebrating Mass, Kobos said Pope John Paul II met individually with approximately 30 people in a private library.

"He came walking into the room with a cane," Kobos said. "He was hunched over and his speech was slurred. You could tell he was ailing, but he still took the time to meet us."

'Profound experience'

Kobos said a bishop, who was the pope's secretary, introduced approximately 20 other people in the audience to the pope, but when it came time for Kobos' group of 10 to meet the pontiff, Tolczyk did the introductions.

"He was so warm when he greeted us," the priest said. "We talked a little in Polish and he gave each of us a rosary that I will always cherish. Meeting him was such a profound experience."

Kobos presented Pope John Paul II with a photograph of a reliquary of St. Anthony of Padua, a 13th century contemporary of St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order.

The 66-year-old priest, who has served as pastor of the Shamokin church for approximately four years, said Pope John Paul II had a unique set of talents that he wove into his personality and character that enabled him to become one of the great leaders of the Catholic Church.

"He experienced the horrors of the Nazis during World War II and was forced to study secretly for the priesthood," Kobos said. "He was an actor, athlete and gifted student, and had such great charisma and intellect. He was very comfortable with his linguistic abilities, having fluently spoken seven different languages. He possessed the passion to spread the Gospel and good news of Jesus and was a prime mover in the fall of communism in eastern Europe."

Pope John Paul II, who was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years, jetted around the world, taking his message to 129 countries in 104 trips outside Italy, including seven to the United States.

Kobos described Pope John Paul II, a native of Poland who served as pope from 1978 until his death in 2005 at age 84, as a "giant in the history of the Catholic Church who deserves being called Pope John Paul II The Great."

A grandfather image

The priest also praised the legacy of Pope John XXIII, who was the pontiff from 1958 to 1963.

He's best remembered for convening the Second Vatican Council in 1962 that launched an extensive renewal of the church that led to major reforms involving its structure, liturgy, ecumenism, social communication and Eastern churches.

"He had a grandfather image and changed the history of the church," Kobos said. "He radicalized the church by bringing it into the modern era."