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Valley faithful mixed on papal exit

| Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The group sang the Polish version of “Happy Birthday” to the pontiff, Wallace Zielinski recalled.

“Sto Lat,” translated, means 100 years. The song's lyrics: “A hundred years, a hundred years, Let him live, live with us. A hundred years, a hundred years.”

“He was just turning 80,” Zielinski said of the then-pontiff, John Paul II.

“He said, ‘I guess I have 20 more years.'”

Less than five years later, Pope John Paul II's death saddened Catholics worldwide. That led to the election of Pope Benedict XVI.

On Monday, Pope Benedict XVI announced he was stepping down at the end of the month, becoming the first Pope in nearly 600 years to resign.

The decision shocked Catholics in the Valley and around the world.

Zielinski woke up this morning to the news the pope would leave his post.

“Now, people are living longer,” Zielinski said. “With the responsibility you have (as Pope), that would be very stressful, and you need to be in good health to continue.”

The news gave Zielinski pause to recall his Vatican trip to visit Pope Benedict's predecessor.

The Carroll Township man was the national President of the Polish Falcons of America at the time. The organization contributed to the establishment of the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., prompting the Vatican trip.

“It was fantastic,” Zielinski said. “You see this man who is a leader of all of the Catholics in world. He was very humble and jovial in a way.”

After Mass, Zielinski was among the visitors who lined up, waiting for a chance to meet the Holy Father.

Pat Polachek of Bentleyville has had four audiences with Pope Benedict XVI, the most recent just a few months ago.

Polachek said it was awe inspiring to meet the pope.

“To be in the presence of the vicar of Christ, just the presence of the Holy Spirit, the presence of God surrounding the entire Vatican – you feel as if you are in the presence of Christ,” Polachek said.

Polachek said she has mixed emotions about the announcement Monday.

“When John Paul II died, we grieved the loss. But we have to trust that God's will will come to fruition,” Polachek said.

Andrew Shepelak of Charleroi still wears a St. Andrew medal blessed by Pope Benedict XVI.

He wears it with a crucifix and several other holy medals.

The medals were gifts of the Rev. Kim J. Schreck, who was a seminarian at the time.

Schreck was supported by the Knights of Columbus while attending The Pontifical North American College, located right outside the Vatican.

“The medals are a very special gift, something that was blessed by Holy Father in Rome,” Shepelak said.

Shepelak had a mixed reaction to the news about Benedict.

“I was a little bit surprised, but then not because he is 85,” Shepelak said. “You could see recently that he has aged and was having trouble getting around.”

Shepelak said he'd be surprised if an American is tabbed to be the next pontiff.

“All we can do as Catholics is pray for the Holy Father, especially in his advancing years, and pray for the (papal) conclave when they get together that they pick the right person.

“Whoever is chosen, we have to pray for him, because he has tremendous responsibility. The weight of the world is on his shoulders.”

Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or