Seeing the face of God through Pope John Paul II

ARE stormy times ahead for the Church of St. Peter?

ARE stormy times ahead for the Church of St. Peter? (theaustralian.com.au)

IF the Catholic Church were a democracy, the election of a new pope to step into Pope Benedict XVI’s red pair of Prada shoes before Easter Sunday rolls in would have been a foregone conclusion. Since the number of Catholics in Europe has steadily declined over the decades, the next pope would likely come from Latin America, Africa or perhaps even Asia, where Catholicism continues to grow.

NOT only is Pope Benedict XVI blessed with a sense of humor, he also happens to be multilingual. (knowyourmeme.com)

NOT only is Pope Benedict XVI blessed with a sense of humor, he also happens to be multilingual. (knowyourmeme.com)

And if the Catholic Church, in keeping with the teachings of Vatican II, continues to embrace modernity in a nearly literal sense by allowing bona fide Catholics to weigh in through text and on-line voting in the selection of a new pope, the contest would have been over by now except for the counting.

With tech-savvy Filipinos for intercessors, Manila’s Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle should start getting used to cold weather, as he would most likely make the big move from balmy Philippines to temperate Italy soon.

Million and one concerns
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He should start shopping on-line as well for extra pairs of red shoes since he would soon be swamped with a million and one concerns—from how to stem the rise of secularism and evangelical Christians the world over, to making calibrated moves to repair the seemingly irreparable damage caused by pedophile priests and their bishop-enablers in the Catholic Chruch.

Of course, I’m being facetious. Both shoes and the weather would be the least of the next pope’s problems, as he continues to position the Catholic Church by making it more relevant and responsive to the changing needs and ideals of its flock in the 21st century.

HIS detractors have said and will continue to say all sorts of things against him, but in my book, Pope Benedict XVI did something pretty brave and unorthodox by resigning. So much for being branded a conservative. (www.herald.com.au)

HIS detractors have said and will continue to say all sorts of things against him, but, in my book, Pope Benedict XVI did something pretty brave and unorthodox by resigning. So much for being branded a conservative. (www.herald.com.au)

Having been even now a “Rome virgin,” the only instances I saw a pope in person was when Pope John Paul II visited the Philippines in 1981 and 1995. The first time was when Edward Cabral, a dear friend of mine from UST High School, and I attended a papal mass, if I remember right, at the Quezon Memorial Circle in February 1981.

Soon after the mass, I saw the ruddy-faced pope, who was barely a few meters away from me, smiling and waving to the faithful from an air-conditioned bus. Those were innocent years. Buoyed by faith and youthful enthusiasm, I suddenly felt warm and comfortable upon laying eyes on the pope, never mind if my feet were already killing me after having walked long distances all morning.

Children of Jerusalem

Like adoring children of Jerusalem, Edward and I again found ourselves hearing papal mass a day or two later, this time at the Luneta, where his Holiness was to beatify then Venerable Lorenzo Ruiz.

Alas, the crowd at the Quirino Grandstand was as thick as Joseph Ratzinger’s native Black Forest that we ended up barely catching a glimpse of Pope John Paul II. It was a time when so-called “jumbotrons” or giant video walls have yet to be invented.

THE charismatic Pope John Paul II during his first visit in Manila as pope in 1981. (www.juice.ph)

THE charismatic Pope John Paul II during his first visit to Manila as pope in 1981. (www.juice.ph)

For all our trouble, we saw the then first couple arriving in dramatic fashion and making their way towards the grandstand with an army of uniformed hawi boys clearing their path. A veiled Imelda Marcos, despite all her supposed sins against the Filipino people, was a vision in white.

The entire country was ecstatic. It was the second time in Philippine history that a pope visited Filipinos. And as the old cliché went, seeing the pope in the flesh was the closest thing there was to seeing and even touching the face of God.

Prior to Pope John Paul II’s pastoral visit to Manila, Pope Paul VI, a pope who would probably forever be remembered as the successor to the well-loved and popular Pope John XXIII, made a pilgrimage in 1970 to this Catholic bastion in Asia.

VISIBLY older and wiser, Pope John Paul returns to Manila in 1995 to party with the youth of the world. (lj-longsud.blogspot.com)

VISIBLY older and wiser, Pope John Paul II returns to Manila in 1995 to party with the youth of the world. (lj-longsud.blogspot.com)

Although I was already studying in a Catholic school then, I was too young to remember any details of Pope Paul VI’s visit. Besides, my parents had yet to enroll me that time at the Pontifical University of Santo Tomas, the only school the two popes visited when they made their separate journeys to the Philippines.

Direct hand

And how many of you can claim to have taken a direct hand in a pope’s visit? Well, my friend Anjoy Hipolito and I could say with a straight face that we did our part, albeit as a way to repay for a more temporal transgression against UST.

Barely a month before graduating from high school, Anjoy and I, and a few other delinquents, were told by the principal’s office that we wouldn’t be able to get our diplomas unless we make up for our numerous no-shows during those Saturday afternoon Citizens’ Army Training (CAT) sessions.

As part of our efforts to make up, we were made to string colorful banderitas (small flags), fiesta-style, one Saturday afternoon. Like a network of clotheslines, the dangling  banderitas  were designed to radiate from the grandstand to various points across the UST parade grounds.

Anjoy and I knew what the big fuss was all about. Pope John Paul II was set to say mass from a makeshift and colorful wooden stage on the grandstand a few days hence.  The fact that we were being compelled to do something to help decorate the premises for his Holiness’ arrival made the effort seemed like child’s play. We were soon finished in half the time.

ANJOY Hipolito, the principal perpetrator in the 1981 banderitas caper, and I, his willing accomplice, during a pre-New Year event in late 2012.

ANJOY Hipolito, the principal perpetrator in the 1981 banderitas caper, and I, his willing accomplice then, during a pre-New Year event in late 2012.

Although, I was conscientious enough to follow organizers’ “specs,” Anjoy was able to sneak in something sinister by forming a banderista or two shaped like—gasp!—the male sex organ complete with a pair of balls. I nearly rolled on the grassy field laughing.

Had the Dominican fathers known what we did, we would have probably been expelled and excommunicated right there and then. I wonder how many years in Purgatory await Anjoy and I for pulling off such a stunt.

POPE Paul VI receives warm welcome from Manilans in 1970, two years before Marcos declares martial law.

POPE Paul VI receives a warm welcome from Manilans in 1970, two years before Marcos declares martial law.

When Pope John Paul II returned to the Philippines in 1995 to officiate in the World Youth Day celebrations in Manila, I was already working as a journalist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

I did not see him in action, as my beat had nothing to do with the pope’s visit. And since I was so occupied carving out a career for myself during those early days, I was unable to attend any of his papal masses.

Edward, my constant companion to almost anything and everything related to the Catholic Church, and I had already lost touch by then. Instead, I accidentally caught a glimpse of the pope while I was riding a public bus, as his “popemobile” whizzed by along Magallanes flyover on Edsa.

Although he was visibly much older and appeared more stooped by then, his warm smile, red cheeks and calming aura again managed to assure me, if only fleetingly, that everything was all right with the world. Once again, I was able to feel the presence of the Divine.

A MONTH after Pope John Paul II's February 1981 visit, all the banderitas were gone, but the makeshift stage with a wooden canopy on the grandstand was retained. As far as I know, we're the first and so far only UST High School batch who graduated outdoors and on hallowed grounds. alexyvergara receives his high school diploma from movie star-handsome Fr. Escudero.

A MONTH after Pope John Paul II’s February 1981 visit, all the banderitas were gone, but the makeshift stage with a wooden, bamboo and sawali canopy on the grandstand was retained. As far as I know, we’re the first and so far only batch of UST High School students who graduated outdoors and on hallowed grounds. alexyvergara receives his high school diploma from movie star-handsome Fr. Pedro Escudero.

2 thoughts on “Seeing the face of God through Pope John Paul II

  1. I have an interesting kwento about WYD 1995. I was a delegate of course and I was there at UST when he celebrated mass. I was close enough to the path that the Pope Mobile took that I was able to see his face clearly. I remember gushing, “Ang pula ng bumbunan niya! Like a baby!” Hahaha! But yes, he radiated that charisma, that serene glow that I truly felt I was in the presence of a living saint.

    I was also at Luneta for the vigil. And there lies my biggest adventure as a WYD local participant.

    The area in Luneta where the vigil mass was being held is usually occupied by members of El Shaddai who also do overnight services. They were there, too, and us delegates were separated by very flimsy bamboo “corrals” (yes, like the pig pens), with the the foreign ones in front (of course), in probably nicer areas and not looking like pig pens, while us locals were fenced in.

    And then pandemonium broke because the people at the back, which might have been the very avid El Shaddai community pushed their way into the front, breaking the fences, then causing a stampede.

    Awa ng Diyos, natakapakan ako sa dibdib. Talagang literally trampled on.

    Next thing I knew, I was on a gurney in Fabella Hospital, with an oxygen mask on my face, and several dirty footprints on my chest. I had only turned 18 then so I really thought the incident will stunt my growth (read: make me flat-chested) pero hindi naman. 😀

    I woke up again later to the frightened faces of my parents, who were apparently notified by our local police station, who sent two officers. Akala daw nila aatikihin sila sa puso dahil mga pulis sa gate namin. Tapos, Fabella pa! Later on, I was teased by my older sisters that good thing I was skinny because otherwise, the staff there might have thought I was giving birth dahil nga naman sa reputation ng Fabella. 🙂

    Now I look back at that incident and just laugh it off. I have to admit that is my best memory associated with Pope John Paul II. 🙂

    Sorry my comments are always long, but your blog posts are so engaging kasi! 🙂

    • Wow, Mayo, that was some adventure. No, I don’t mind at all if your reply is as long as some priests’ homily :-D. I’d rather get a long reply than a short, barely there response. And you wrote it quite vividly that I feel it would have been a more meaty material had you written it in a blog. It’s good that you survived such an accident. Anything could have happened. If you still believe in angels or the Blessed Mother’s intercession, then what happened to you was probably proof that miracles do happen. After all, there’s only a minute line separating life and death. Someone out there willed you to live for you to tell your story. 😉 Thanks again for sharing with me your thoughts.

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