Kay Kelly at the audience to John Paul II"I announce to you a great joy."

Kay Kelly watched the TV screen incredulously and listened to the speaker translating into English these words in Latin: "Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum.  Habemus Papam.  Eminentissimum ac Reverentissimum Dominum, Dominum Carolum Sancte Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Wojtyla qui sibi nomen imposuit Ioannem Paulum Secundum…"

Kay saw a cross appear on the balcony of the Vatican Basilica, and immediately behind, the broad figure of a man on whose shoulders lay a large stole.

The speaker explained that the newly elected Pope was a Polish Cardinal and that the decision of the conclave came as a great surprise because for the first time in over four centuries, a non-Italian was chosen to sit on the throne of St. Peter - what's more, it was someone from behind the Iron Curtain.

"Don't ask me how I knew, but I knew then that somehow this person would enter into my life," Kay told me 27 years after the fact.

At that time, Kay lay in Clatterbridge Hospital in Liverpool, where she had been undergoing successive chemotherapy treatments.  In March 1978, it was discovered that Kay had cancer.  "Malignant granuloma," also known as Hodgkin's disease, was the diagnosis.  This didn't mean much to Kay, but the expression on the doctor's face clearly indicated that it was not good news. Later she found out that an especially dangerous growth had invaded her breast.

At the time of her diagnosis, Kay was 34 years old, married for fifteen years and mother of three children: 14-year-old David, 13-year-old Kevin and 12-year-old Jacqueline.  They lived in Liverpool, which is where Kay was born on June 29, 1944.  She eagerly stresses that it is the same day on which the first Pope - St. Peter - and the greatest Apostle - St. Paul - are remembered.  Her given name was Catherine, but later everyone would call her Kay and the name stuck (she herself, though, preferred that she be called by her given name of Catherine).

She was the daughter of a mariner and a housewife.  Kay's father worked aboard ocean freightliners in the North Atlantic - even during World War II when German U-boats were attacking Allied convoys.  Three years after Kay was born, her parents separated.  When she turned 15, Kay quit school and went to work.  When her mother began to run a bar, Kay quit work and began helping at home, since she had many siblings.

"That's when the thing that had to happen did happen," she recalled. One evening as I was helping my mom at the bar, Pat Kelly, a tall docker, came in for a drink.  It was as if we ran into each other and it was love at first sight!  As usual, the predictable choir of voices emerged, saying that it wouldn't last, that we would regret it - all the usual stuff that people say to persuade you."

Four months later they got married.  Kay Peeney became Mrs. Kelly and became a housewife.  She dreamed of starting a family and therefore felt that she should stay at home.

"My kids know where to find me when they need me," she said.  "I'm at home waiting for them."

She lived this way for fifteen years.

"You're wearing yourself out," her friends and family would tell her.

"No, I am just slimming down," she would reply, believing that she was getting thinner because she was trying to.  She attributed the pain in her chest to doing physical work.  In the end, though, she agreed to get a check-up.  She found out that she had cancer.

Kay ended up at Clatterbridge hospital in Liverpool, which specialized in oncology.  Following her first round of treatments, she returned home.  Three months later the chest pains returned.

"I had ten rounds of treatments at Clatterbridge," recalled Kay. "Following radiotherapy I lost my hair and developed other unpleasant side-effects, and finally, metastases.  Chemotherapy was my last hope."

Her talk with the doctor was short and straightforward.

"Please tell me about my condition," asked Kay.

"You know, the disease is very serious," began the doctor somewhat uneasily.

"How much time do I have left?"

"It's odd to hear a woman asking that - usually men ask me that question. Well, if you can finish your chemo, maybe a year or two."

Kay was dumbfounded since she actually felt fine, but she knew that that could change quickly.

"I know you asked for money, Doctor.  I'll do everything I can," she finally said.
Kay's doctor, Dr. Derek Edwards, had been fundraising for a few months in order to establish laboratories at the hospital where new treatments for cancer could be found.  Kay decided to take part in the initiative.

She wasn't entirely sure what to do.  After she started chemotherapy, her body became so weak that she had difficulty moving about.

"I got two Easter eggs from the store at the corner as a reward," she recalled.  "My children distributed lottery tickets among their neighbours and we managed to raise 14 pounds.  That's how it started."

During that time, the closure of the radiation treatment facility where Kay was receiving radiotherapy was announced.  She decided to protest the closure by attending the municipal council meeting with signs she had prepared the night before.  "The Liverpool clinic must stay open.  Cancer patients are suffering enough already.  Give us research laboratories in Clatterbridge," she wrote.  Kay stood at the rear during the council meeting with her signs in hand and listened to the proceedings.

"The council members were allocating monies for all sorts of things," she recalled.
"As usual, nobody wanted to listen.  I thought about all the children undergoing radiotherapy.  I raised my sign up higher.  I felt as though everything in me was boiling over.  The council meeting moved forward, and I was preparing myself for action.  Finally I couldn't take it anymore.  I took the sign, ran across the hall and laid it right in front of the chairman, Sir Kenneth Thompson.

Voices stirred in the hall.  The council members began to yell:

"Get her out of here!"

And they did.  The story made it to the press.  The next day, Sir Thompson invited Kay "for a cup of tea".  He wanted to know what it was all about.  Kay told him.  A great fundraising drive began, which eventually brought in a million pounds.

During the fundraising, Kay met with many famous personalities - Muhammad Ali and then Prime Minister Jim Callaghan, to name two.  She was even given the title of British Catholic of the Year.

All this, however, failed to change a major consideration:  her illness was not letting up but appeared to be advancing all the more.

"I prayed to God to give me strength to accept the inevitable," Kay said.  "I knew other women who had masectomies and yet they were somehow able to keep smiling.  I saw dying men who were still able to smile.  I prayed for my children then as well, feeling it to be altogether possible that they might be angry at God and rebel against Him for what was happening to me, and I wanted to avoid this.  I wanted them to know God and to know that they were loved.  I prayed to the Blessed Virgin asking her for time.  I needed time."

During this time, Kay learned of a woman who had succumbed to cancer in Manchester and who had managed to raise a large sum of money for the hospital in which she was receiving treatment.  The woman's name was Pat Seed.  Was the example of this woman to foretell what awaited Kay? Everything seemed to indicate precisely that.

It was on March 11, 1979 that, once leaving the hospital, Kay kneeled in front of the statue of Mary in her local parish.  She prayed while looking at the figure.  As she knelt, she felt a deep sense of uneasiness but all of a sudden she became quieted.  She doesn't know where it came from, but she felt a strong conviction that she doesn't need to fear the disease that was threatening her life.

Moreover, she couldn't understand all the more why she had the firm conviction that she would meet the Pope.

"How are you, Kay?" asked the pastor, walking by.  "What are you planning in the near future?"

"Soon I will meet the Pope," she answered.

The pastor looked at Kay with empathy.  He figured that her illness must be making her delusional.  To meet with John Paul II?  The pastor knew, however, that this new Pope from faraway Poland was conducting his papal ministry in an entirely different way from his predecessors.  Even so, it couldn't mean that he saw ordinary people, no matter that they be gravely ill …  Kings and queens, heads of state, important people - these could surely get a visit with the Pope … but others?

Kay, too, upon returning home, wondered if she hadn't fallen victim to some kind of illusion.  What reason, after all, would she have to meet the Pope?  He had just been elected five months earlier so he surely had a million other matters more important to deal with than to raise the spirits of an Englishwoman whom he didn't even know.

A phone call soon cast aside those doubts.  A representative of the Knights of Columbus called Kay and informed her of a prize awarded her by this well-known Catholic charity.  The Knights had decided to honour Kay's efforts during her fundraiser to help those suffering with cancer.  The prize consisted of exactly two airline tickets to Rome for immediate use.

The next day, Kay and her son David were aboard an aircraft flying from Liverpool to Rome.  Prior to departure, Kay learned that the Archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Worlock, arranged a semi-private audience with the Pope for her immediately following the Wednesday General Audience on March 14.

They arrived in Rome at night on March 13.  Their flight was delayed and they arrived at the Eternal City at 3 o'clock in the morning.  In the afternoon they went to St. Peter's Square and later for tea (traditionally held at five o'clock) to the seminary for priests who could not study in Great Britain after King Henry VIII made Catholicism illegal there.  In the evening, Kay set out for Piazza Navona and was enthralled by Bernini's fountain with its four sculpted figures representing the Nile River, the Danube River, the Ganges River and La Plata.
The following day, a cleric from the English seminary came to the hotel to pick them up and take them to the Vatican.

"At the time, I wasn’t sure what our meeting with the Holy Father was going to be like," recalled David Lowis.  "The rector of the seminary only told me that he hoped that the Holy Father would be able to meet with Kay."

They got to the gate leading to the small square on the left side of St. Peter's Basilica.  This was the entrance to the Paul VI Auditorium, which was designed by well-known Italian architect, Pier Luigi Nervi.

Kay Kelly at the audience to John Paul II"At 12:15, the Holy Father began to cross the auditorium.  Camera lights flashed all around him.  People stretched out their hands," recalled the seminarian.  "The Holy Father's walk through the auditorium took him about half-an-hour.  I saw Kay sitting patiently in the section devoted to the sick.  The Holy Father then began his address in Italian.  I translated for Kay and David.  Then the Holy Father spoke in French, English, German and Spanish, to invite everyone to sing the Our Father.

The audience was nearing its end.  The Pope left the podium and made his way to greet the sick.  David Lowis noted that the John Paul II was coming in their direction - and was now right in front of them!"

"Your Holiness, may I introduce Mrs. Kay Kelly to you?" asked the cleric.

"Oh, Mrs. Kelly from Liverpool," replied the Pope in English.

"I've heard a lot about you."

Kay Kelly at the audience to John Paul IIThey spoke for a moment.  The Holy Father signed his autograph on a photo of himself which Kay had brought, dedicating it to her son, David.  Then he hugged Kay.  The Holy Father moved on, but suddenly turned around and approached Kay again.

"I am very proud of you.  You are an excellent mother," said the Holy Father, and then he moved on.

What was it like for Kay to meet Pope John Paul II?

"It takes a lot of courage to be that human and it seems to me that he had that gift," recalled Kay.  "I felt that my meeting with the Pope was the turning point in my illness.  His love and understanding created an atmosphere of joy that enveloped everyone and everything in his midst.  His interior peace and self control were manifested in his smile.  It was very easy to speak with him.  I was also struck by the fact that he didn't seem burdened by protocol.  This Pope showed that he was a Shepherd of the people.  I remember telling him how I hoped that one day he would visit Liverpool."

Kay's stay in Rome lasted less than 20 hours.  Following the audience, Kay returned home.

On a subsequent visit to the hospital, the doctors examining Kay were completely shocked to find that there was absolutely no cancer in her system!  They could find no signs of the first bout of the disease, nor any signs of the metastases that had developed.  The story spread quickly and news of the healing reached the Vatican.  Journalists asked Pope John Paul II about the extraordinary healing at the first opportunity.

"Her faith has cured her," was the Holy Father's explanation.

"Her faith has cured her."  Kay recalls the Holy Father's words 26 years later.  I hear the voice of an older woman through the telephone receiver.  She has gained in years, of course, but she still has the same fighting spirit today that she had back then, when nobody believed she had a chance to survive.
"It happened some time ago," Kay says, "and in all the years since then I have tried to serve God."

How?  Kay raised tens of thousands of pounds in support of the work of Mother Teresa, who opened a small convent for the Missionaries of Charity in Liverpool.  She also spent time with those dying, who had asked for her to be with them in their final moments.

"I prayed for them believing that life does not end but that there is only eternal love when one goes to be with God," said Kay.  "I also sent two young people to see the Pope.  Both were sick with cancer and both had abandoned their faith.  Before their deaths, both regained their faith.  That is a true miracle.  People say to me, 'Kay, you were healed - that's a miracle,' to which I say 'the miracle happens when you change your life.'  One of the young people was a woman named Julia; she was married and had children.  The other was a nice-looking mulatto boy from southern Liverpool.  Neither of them ever thought they'd see the Holy Father.  I was at their funerals.  I wasn't sad though, because I knew that they had died in peace.

And Kay - how is she doing over a quarter-century later?

In 2004, Kay's husband passed away from cancer.  That year she also learned that she had been a mother not of three but four children.

"When I was sick, I was told that I had to undergo a hysterectomy.  At first I didn't agree because I wanted to have more children.  Then the doctors persisted in order to change my mind.  I thought I was pregnant at the time, so I refused - but they kept convincing me that it was all in my head.  In the end the operation was done.  Last year I ordered copies of my hospital papers and inadvertently learned that I had been right - I was pregnant.  I don't know if it was a girl or a boy.  I call the unborn child Michael.  I later visited the doctor who was treating me back then and asked him, "why did you do that?"  "It was a long time ago," he retorted. "We had no obligation to tell you."

In the spring of 2005, Kay listened with trepidation to the news coming out of the Vatican.

"I was very sad upon learning of the Holy Father's death," said Kay, "but I know that he went straight to heaven.  Yes, I continue to pray to him," she added. "This prayer gives me strength, hope and gives meaning to my life.  We need prayer and people like the Holy Father who will intercede for us so that we can do good.  I expect that he will be beatified."

Kay admits that while she always had faith, in her youth she used to criticize the Popes.

"I couldn't understand why they were so inaccessible and kept apart from the people," she said. "The Holy Father is supposed to be a Father figure - yet I didn’t feel that to be the case at all.  John Paul II changed all that; he went out among the faithful.  He even met with me, a simple housewife from Liverpool."
Kay would like to visit the homeland of John Paul II.  She has a reason:

"I'd like to bring some of your priests to England," she said.  "We need them immensely - there is a shortage of priests here."

In 2000, Kay began the second battle of her life: she fought to re-open the famous church in Liverpool dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Mother of Angels.  One of the reasons it had been closed was the lack of priests in the diocese.  Kay Kelly believes that the presence of priests from Poland, with their deep spiritual life, could turn the situation around.

One question remained: What did she feel when she learned that her days were numbered?

"It's strange, but in those months which I thought were going to be my last, I was full of happiness.  I felt that I could help others and that thanks to this, I was pleasing to God.  Every second, every minute and every day I was aware of what a precious gift life is.  Living every moment in happiness gives a feeling of being fully alive."

Was she scared?  Did she rebel against what had befallen her?

"Sometimes people ask, 'Why me?  Why did this have to happen to me?'; Christ never asked 'why me' - He persevered until the end.  The reward comes when one accepts one's situation.  If you pray 'Your will be done' and you believe in prayer, miracles happen.  They happen when you stop asking 'why me?' and you accept everything with gratitude, as a gift.  We have to avoid fear because fear can destroy everything.  I know it well.  I understand those who say, 'I could take a pill and it'd be all over with'.  I sympathize with those who have little faith.  Fear always lurks behind.  Fear comes from Satan - he is the one who nurtures your fear.  Fear can be defeated by praying: 'I believe in God; may His will be done.'  Fear is worst of all.  You can get by with the illness but fear is much more powerful because it destroys your perception of reality.  When we are afraid, we wish to turn around.  But when we surrender, God steps forth - and if we trust in Him, we regain our strength."

How did Kay feel being at the edge of death?

"Imminent death sharpens perception.  Now I must use that sharpened perception to help others.  I know that I must speak to the ill - especially those who have cancer.  That helps them.  People call me and are glad when they know that I'm coming.  I tell them to thank God for all the good they've received in their lives.  Yes, it's important to be able to accept one's illness.  I know how hard that is, but I tell them that they will be much happier once they offer their pain to God.  Don't expect rewards now.  Don't expect anything.  Just accept that which must be accepted - therein lies the mystery."