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Islanders get up close with pope


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POSTED: Thursday, October 08, 2009

ROME » A Jumbotron screen gave more than 10,000 visitors in St. Peter's Square a close-up view of Pope Benedict XVI at his weekly public audience yesterday.

Two Hawaii pilgrims among more than 500 islanders in the crowd had close-up encounters of the real kind with the pontiff.

“;He was this close; he spoke to me, but we didn't understand each other,”; said Audrey Toguchi, 81, of Aiea. She moves almost cheek to cheek to each listener to demonstrate that the brief conversation was very personal. “;I thanked him for making Father Damien a saint.”;

Hawaii Catholic Bishop Larry Silva also spoke to the pope, thanking him for accepting Father Damien De Veuster as a saint. The Hawaii pilgrims are in Rome for the Sunday canonization celebration in which the pope will declare the 19th-century missionary a saint for his service to leprosy patients in Kalaupapa.

The conversations took place at the end of the pope's two-hour public appearance, during which an English-language commentator mentioned that visitors from the diocese of Honolulu were in the crowd. Numerous other attendees were identified.

Priests speaking six languages took turns introducing groups from parishes, schools and other organizations from specific countries or ethnic groups.

Toguchi sat with other Hawaii residents who filed into the square two hours before the event to secure choice seats. She and her husband, Yukio, were escorted to a front-row seat by a member of the papal staff.

The special attention was not a surprise. She had been told to expect a possible close conversation with the leader of the Catholic Church. The life story of the retired Aiea High School teacher was pivotal to the cause for Damien's sainthood. She was cured of terminal lung cancer in 1998 after praying to Damien to intercede with God for healing.

Toguchi took a handful of Damien medals with her and asked the pope to bless them, which he did. “;He seemed shy and gentle ... not as he is portrayed in the media,”; she said.

Her husband, who is a Buddhist not familiar with church protocol, stood beside her, not thinking to take off his yellow baseball cap. Toguchi, who wore a black and white pant suit, said: “;He was so flabbergasted when the pope walked down toward us.”;

The island pilgrims, self-absorbed in their connection with Damien on the trip to Belgium and Rome, got a new perspective as they saw groups from several countries take turns demonstrating their enthusiasm about being there.

The 68-voice Damien choir sang “;Hawaii Aloha”; and the halau in matching shirts and leis performed a chant to “;O Kamiano.”; Choir director Calvin Liu said they were caught aback when the announcer mentioned the Honolulu diocese visitors. “;By the time we thought of singing, they had moved on to another group.”;

Some 21 members of Damien of Molokai parish are in Rome for the canonization, too. Pastor James Kean said they are in a learning experience about the new saint whose name was newly bestowed on the parish.

The parish, soon to be renamed St. Damien, was created by merging three long-standing parishes.