Hands down, Nov. 29 was “the best day of my life,” says 7-year-old Paul Nichols, of Malone, N.Y. Early that morning, at private Mass in the papal chapel in Rome, he received first Communion from John Paul II. “There's only one word” for the experience, says Paul. “A blessing.”

It was a blessing for Paul's family, too. Watching from the front pew, his parents, Joseph and Kathleen Nichols, thought back to their son's iffy first two years of life. Six months after birth, Paul was diagnosed with fourth-stage neuroblastoma, a cancer that originated in his adrenal glands and shot through his body. He went blind, as cancerous tumors damaged his optic nerves and pushed his eyes forward till they were actually out of his skull.

By his third birthday, the boy had endured two years of chemotherapy, three radiation sessions, and four major surgeries, including one in which three feet of intestines were removed.

“Jesus, where are you?” Kathleen had once cried in anguish on seeing little Paul on his hospital bed — tied down, hooked up, in pain. An inner voice answered, “Here I am.” In her son's suffering Kathleen glimpsed Jesus on the cross and grasped something of what Mary went through at the crucifixion. The experience also gave Kathleen hope in God's merciful love, pointing her toward the resurrection.

Sitting in the papal chapel, the Nichols prayed in union with their other children? Maureen (15), Claire (12), John (5) and Veronica (1) — who accompanied them to Rome but were not present at this Mass.

Maureen and Claire especially had played a critical part in Paul's recovery; again and again, their very presence had seemed to strengthen his will to live.

Family friend Father Garry Giroux concelebrated with the Pope. Like many other friends and family members, he had helped storm heaven with prayers for Paul's healing. Saints Lucy, Peregrine, Peter, Pius X, and especially Our Lady of Guadalupe had been invoked. And against all odds, in February 2000, five years after his last chemotherapy session, Paul was declared free of cancer. Today, he is legally blind but able to detect shapes and colors and read large print. “Our little Lazarus,” the family calls him — and keeps praying for total restoration of his sight.

Throughout Paul's struggles for life and health, his parents have always whispered in his ear, “Be not afraid,” the words with which John Paul II began his pontificate. They have been heartened by the Pope's efforts to promote a culture of life.

This sense of closeness with the Holy Father made their son's first Communion experience all the more moving. “Seeing Paul with Pope John Paul — a boy who has gone through suffering with a great deal of bravery together with a Pope who has himself suffered and who constantly reaches out to the suffering — that was a sight I will never forget,” says Joe Nichols.

“It highlighted the amazing reality that the Church reaches out to children, to the disabled, to everyone. No one is left behind.”

In fact, this reality began hitting home as soon as Kathleen had the inspiration for a first Communion in Rome and discussed the possibility with the family's pastor, Msgr. Dennis Duprey, of Notre Dame Church in Malone. Msgr. Duprey responded by writing a letter of request and contacting local bishop Gerald Barbarito on the Nichols' behalf. Bishop Barbarito approved the request and forwarded it to the Vatican.

“To be honest,” says Joe, “I'd been skeptical about this idea working out. But through the help of our pastor and bishop, as well as other people in Rome, I saw it become a reality. It was a great witness to me that in the Church, everyone is important.”

For his part, says Msgr. Duprey, “I was delighted to help. Paul was being prepared for first penance and first Communion through the parish catechetical program and also at home, and I knew he was ready. Of course, I'd be thrilled if any of my parishioners received Communion from the Pope! But Paul is a person of a lot of faith, and I knew he would appreciate the enormity of the privilege.”

Paul and John Paul

Talking to Paul bears out Mgsr. Duprey's observations.

“Receiving Jesus from the Pope is, like, the best honor anyone could have,” says Paul. He was eager for it. “When we got the phone call that it was set for the next day, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I wish it could be right now!’ I was that excited.”

Meeting the Pope in a side room after Mass was exciting too. “He was in sort of a cream-colored robe,” Paul remembers. “I told him Totus Tuus and that made him smile. Then he kissed me on the head. I think it was his way of blessing my eyes.”

But for Paul, the biggest blessing of all was receiving Jesus in the Eucharist. “I was most excited about that. Definitely. Because Jesus is in the host, and I wanted him to come into my heart. And he did! I kind of noticed it too. I was happy, and I could sort of feel that Jesus was really happy to be in my heart.”

Paul has noticed something else since then. “Receiving Communion helps me in my life. I'm more loving to my family, I think. Because Jesus can strengthen you with love, you know?”

Louise Perrotta writes from St. Paul, Minnesota