The last time Geralyn Smith went to a papal Mass at Madison Square Garden, she was 6 years old and had the best seat in the house — after John Paul II picked her out of the crowd and had her set down on the Popemobile.
Thirty-six years later, Smith is marking the U.S. visit of a different pope with a return trip to the arena. And while she doesn't expect to get close to the pontiff this time, she thinks it will be just as electrifying an experience.
"I was so young the first time around, and now I see all the buildup and excitement," Smith, now 42, told NBC News this week. "I can really appreciate it."
In 1979, young Geralyn was a shy first-grader who had recently lost her dad, a New York City police detective, to pneumonia. Friends of her father surprised the family with four tickets to see Pope John Paul II at the Garden.
"The morning of, it was raining and we were debating whether to go. My mother wasn't used to driving into the city. But at the last minute she said, 'We're going,'" Smith recalled.
"We thought we would be high up in the rafters. As it turned out we were in the first 10 rows."
Smith didn't know it, but as she settled into her seat, she was about to get even closer. A security guard walked her down to the very front so all the taller people around her wouldn't block her view when the pope came in.
"The pope entered in the Popemobile and the vehicle started to slow and he was waving, beckoning," Smith remembered. "I didn't know it was towards me, but the next thing I knew, security picked me up and lifted me over, and he lifted me onto the Popemobile."
The iconic photo shows John Paul II grasping the little girl's shins to steady her as she looked down at him, the crowd of 19,000 cheering all around her.
"All I could remember was his eyes — they were beautiful — and there was a glow about him," she said. "He made me happy."
Her moment in the spotlight lasted only a minute, and then security returned her to her seat. "From that point on, I didn't remember anything. My mother said I was almost in a trance," she said.
Fleeting though it was, the face-to-face meeting had a profound impact on Geralyn, who says it "helped me come out of my shell after my father's death."
The Vatican sent her a rosary, which is now on display at the Garden. She wrote birthday cards to the pope every year.
In 1995, as a young woman, she was part of the offertory procession for John Paul II's Mass in Central Park. She brought along a framed copy of the photo from 1979.
"He looked at it and he said, 'That's you?'" Smith recalled. "And then he said, 'I remember. I remember.'"
It was her connection to John Paul II that gave Smith a chance to see Pope Francis in person. The Garden set aside a ticket for her and her mother for Friday afternoon's Mass.
"She won't find out until Wednesday where she's sitting, but she said it doesn't really matter. She's just excited to be in the presence of the new pope — "a humble man who seems to want to do the right things for everybody."
"It's amazing," said Smith, who lives in Bardonia, N.Y. "I can't wait."