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Pope John Paul II
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St. Cloud Catholics recall personal meetings with Pope John Paul II
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Sue Ek from St. Paul wrote a book on natural family planning. She gave the Pope a copy of the book, which was dedicated to him, in 2003. (Courtesy of Sue Ek)
As Roman Catholics mourn the death of Pope John Paul II, many in Minnesota are remembering the personal meetings they had with the pontiff. Those who met the pope say he was a personable and humble man. They say the honor of meeting him and the items he gave them, now seem even more important.

St. Cloud, Minn. — St. Cloud Diocese Bishop John Kinney says the Pope's death brings him relief and sadness; relief that Pope John Paul II's struggle with poor health is over. Sadness that someone he saw as part of his family is gone.

"Everybody feels as I do; this is our pope," says Kinney. "He's our holy father, and I don't mean that as a title. He really was a holy father to me, as well as a brother."

As a bishop it was part of John Kinney's job to meet with the pope. He travelled to Rome five times to visit him; the first time was in 1979, just after he became pope. The last was just five months ago.

Kinney also travelled with the Pope several times when he visited the United States. He says the pope always made people feel special, even in large gatherings.

"Of course there were hundreds of people lined up. But he concentrated on you; he was not looking beyond to the next person or to say 'Oh how long is this line going to?' He had a tremendous love for each and every person," Kinney said.

A large ornate cross hangs around Bishop John Kinney's neck. Pope John Paul II gave Kinney the pewter cross during their last meeting, in December 2004.

For lay Catholics who met the Pope, similar gifts and the memory of a papal visit carry even greater meaning now.

"I felt kind of awestruck. Tears just rolled down my face, because I think the Holy Spirit just overcame me, it was very very special," says Kay Ek, who met the pope four times.

Ek's work with the St. Cloud Diocese afforded her the opportunity to meet the pope personally. She's one of the founders of the natural family planning movement within the Catholic church. She and her husband Dave, who was there for three of the meetings, were given a Rosary by the Pope each time.

"That is very special, and that will become very special as the days go on. I treasure them. I haven't been able to share them with anyone else," she says.

"I think I gave one of mine away, but I can't remember who got it now," says Dave.

The Ek's have framed photos of their meetings with the Pope placed around their St. Cloud home.

Their daughter, Sue, also met the pope. Sue Ek wrote a book on natural family planning, and presented the pope with a copy. She remembers the pope as an approachable, yet strong, figure who she felt had a direct connection with God. But she was also impressed with a more worldly aspect of the pope.

"I remember seeing his shoes, they were these gorgeous, deep-brown leather Italian shoes and it was just so cool to be right there in front of him, really an honor," she says.

Even though their meetings lasted less than a minute each time, Dave Eck says the pope was gracious and attentive. "He shakes your hand, and we greet him, what do you say to the pope? 'How are you?', but he was very personable. I felt that he was very comfortable in his role as pope, and kind of wanted to share the ceremonial aspect of it and the power of it, with ordinary people. He was very humble person," he says.

The Ek's say it was the pope's humble approach to his followers that they'll remember most. They say the next pope, should take a cue from how Pope John Paul II treated ordinary people in person.