Michael Ledva waited on Queens Boulevard for an hour to catch a glimpse of Pope John Paul II's motorcade during his historic trip to New York City in 1979 -- and got the thrill of his life.
"He took your breath away as he went by -- there he goes, the pope," said Ledva, 58, a financial adviser from St. James and a former altar boy. "You just knew you were in the presence of a holy man."
Ledva and other Roman Catholics are having similar feelings of joy this weekend because of an unprecedented event at the Vatican: the twin canonizations of two popes, John Paul II and John XXIII, by Pope Francis.
John XXIII was pope from 1958 to 1963 and ushered in the Vatican II reforms aimed at modernizing the church, in part by empowering lay people.
John Paul II, who served for almost 27 years and was the first non-Italian pontiff in more than 450 years, became the most visible leader of the Roman Catholic Church in history through his travels to about 140 countries. His canonization comes just nine years after his death.
It normally takes decades, even centuries, to gain sainthood, said Msgr. James McNamara, pastor of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Church in Point Lookout and a faculty member, in the 1980s, at the Pontifical North American College in Rome that trains U.S. seminarians.
"It's an extraordinary weekend," McNamara said.
During his time in Rome and later visits, McNamara said, he had several encounters with John Paul II. Once, he and about 70 pilgrims he was leading on a tour had a private audience with the pope, along with about 100 pilgrims from John Paul's native Poland.
"He was very warm and very generous with his time and presence," McNamara said.
Andrzej Jerzy Zglejszewski, a native of Poland and the first immigrant to hold the post of auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, has credited John Paul II with inspiring him to become a priest.
Some have criticized John Paul II, saying he failed to act swiftly as the church's sexual abuse crisis emerged toward the end of his pontificate, but McNamara defended him.
"I feel he was trying to do the best he could at a time when we were trying to absorb the shock of it all," McNamara said. "I don't think he ignored it as much as people would think."
For John Picciano, a parishioner at St. Kilian's in Farmingdale, one of John Paul II's greatest contributions was aiding in the downfall of communism, which "he did behind the scenes, quietly and prayerfully."
Manuel J. Ramos, a parishioner at St. Brigid's parish in Westbury and a former head of the Hispanic Apostolate for diocese, is energized by the twin canonizations -- and the new pope, Francis.
"It's a great moment for the church, and it is wonderful to be alive," he said.
Ramos said he was at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens in 1995 when John Paul II celebrated a Mass there. "It was such an atmosphere of prayer and awe," he said. "I'll never forget that."
John XXIII has had at least as much influence on him and the church itself, Ramos added. "He was an extraordinarily humble man, but changed the church in a way that no other pope in the past 300 or 400 years had done."
The Rev. Christopher Nowak, pastor of St. John of God Parish in Central Islip, said he visited Rome four years ago and saw people weeping at the tomb of John XXIII. "There was a great reverence," he said. "We are still living in his spirit and the spirit of Vatican II."