He was a head taller than most of the students, so Fr. Kelly suddenly found himself in straight eye contact with John Paul II.
"There was so much joy and appreciation and gratitude in his eyes that these kids were there," Fr. Kelly said.
"But then, his look turned like a storm with a critical question – 'Why didn't you tell me before they came?'" the Pope demanded of the priest.
"You know, like I could call up the Pope and tell him we're coming," Fr. Kelly recalled with a laugh.
"I tried to give an excuse, I said it was hanging by a thread that it was going to happen, I just fumbled my way through it. What are you going to do when the Pope is asking you for accountability?" Fr. Kelly said.
In hindsight, Fr. Kelly said he maybe could have called an office in the Vatican to alert them of the Russian students, but he didn't realize that this visit would be so important for the Pope.
But Russia was dear to St. John Paul II's heart, as he had played a critical role in the peaceful fall of communism and the Soviet Union. Just a few years prior, he had met for over an hour with President Mikhail Gorbachev, who later said the peaceful dissolution of the USSR would have been impossible without the Roman Pontiff.
Perhaps their meeting in 1989 had also softened Gorbachev's heart prior to World Youth Day 1991, when the leader allowed some 20,000 Russian youth to attend the event in Poland for the first time ever. The conciliatory move was the whole reason the Russian students were now meeting John Paul II in Rome.
"He said to me, 'This is the first group of Russians I've ever greeted in the audience hall'," Fr. Kelly said.
It's possible that it may have been the first youth group from Moscow to visit Rome ever, Fr. Kelly said.
"I don't want to claim that title, because there may have been others, but it's unlikely that anyone would have been able to come before the start of communism," he said.
(Story continues below)
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He said the Pope was visibly moved by the Russian students.
"He was happy, he was happy. He said if he would have known that they were there, he would have greeted them formally from the stage."
And the Russian students?
"They were elated."
This article was originally published on CNA Oct. 22, 2016.
Mary Farrow worked as a staff writer for Catholic News Agency until 2020. She has a degree in journalism and English education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.