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My affinity with the Pope(s)

Just a few hours ago, His Holiness Pope Francis finally landed in the Philippines. With great joy and much excitement, he was welcomed by almost every Filipino, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, all over the nation. The moment we saw him step out of the airplane and waved to the crowd, he won the country over - although to be honest, it wasn't a very difficult crowd to charm anyway. We've been in love with this Pope long before we saw a glimpse of his face on the airplane window. He's been a breath of fresh air, a silver lining amidst everything that's been going on in our lives, individually and as a nation. The way he has been leading by example and showing nothing but love for others, it's difficult to imagine anyone not being smitten by him, especially us Filipinos. I can think of no other person in the world whose visit will cause the closure of roads, the cancellation of flights, and a five-day holiday/long weekend.

A great perk of living near the airport: when the news outlets reported that the Sri Lankan airline carrying the Pope had entered the Philippine area of responsibility, my mom and I immediately rushed outside to our garden and looked up in the sky, waving like crazy fangirls while shouting, "Hello, Pope Francis!"

I'm rarely ever a fangirl to anything, let alone anyone, but man, if I have to name one person I totally went out of my way for numerous times just to attend his "gigs," it would definitely be the Pontifex.


In 1995, when Pope John Paul II visited the country for the second time, I vividly remember standing along Roxas Boulevard, waiting for the papal mobile to pass by. I had just turned three, and didn't fully comprehend why we had to wait for long hours under the sun just to catch a glimpse of a man in white. All I knew was, according to my parents and my tita, we were waiting for a special person. And when you're three, you only associate the words "special person" with Santa Claus and the Power Rangers -- which was enough to make me excited, really.

I don't understand now how a tiny little girl like me was not trampled by the crowd that eagerly anticipated the pope, but I do understand that even for a young, naive child, the frenzy that took over everyone around me meant that this man was a truly exceptional person. When his pope mobile finally whizzed by, his smiling face was something I clearly remembered. He was waving, and we were all waving back. He was a vision in white, an friendly lolo that was saying hello to all of us.

At three, I didn't know who he was, but I got a sense of what it was that made him special. I saw it for myself; I just didn't understand yet.

"Bakit siya may platito sa ulo?" I asked innocently.

And it was the start of a great journey of getting to know the Pope.


Almost ten years later, in 2003, I was one of the few students chosen to represent our school in the 4th World Meeting of Families, which was to be held here in Manila. I was of course, thrilled and excited. It meant missing school for a few days to attend a week-long seminar with thousands of other delegates from all over the world about our families, our faith, and the Church. It meant singing and dancing, eating and be merry, learning about new cultures. It's not something all fifth-graders get to experience.

But it also meant missing the entire Intramurals which, for a first-time cheerdancer like me, was actually pretty devastating. I already had my costume, I already earned the bruises from my attempts at forward rolls and cartwheels. We already had the routine down pat. Being a cheerleader meant a lot because I was a nerdy honor student, and how often does the geeky girl get chosen to dance for Intrams, right? I remember crying to my papa one night, asking him to help me with what seemed like the toughest decision of my life at the time. (Yeah, you have permission to roll your eyes now, ha ha hahaha.) I think it was the first time he taught me the idiom "You can't have your cake and eat it too." I had to make a decision; I couldn't have it both ways.

The next morning, I found myself awake at 5:30 am, on the way to the PICC to attend the opening ceremonies of the World Meeting of Families. Over the course of the next few days, I would meet kids of all ages, from Pasig to Perth. It was amazing to see so many people of different colors all in one place. We were all discussing about love - of family, of friends, of neighbors. Of God. We spoke in different tongues, but somehow we understood each other.

Capping of that very eventful week was a camp at Luneta, where a Mass will be celebrated by Pope John Paul II via live telecast. He was already quite weak and fragile at the time, no longer able to go on long trips to places like the Philippines. But it was evident how much love he had for the country; and once again, I was immersed in that collective effervescence. The entire night leading up to the Mass, the entire Luneta Park was in a frenzy. We were once again singing and dancing, listening to different priests and nuns speak and share their experiences. It was probably my first big "sleepover" and one of the first few times I ever went beyond my bedtime (the Mass was going to be at early in the morning, MNL time), but it was so, so worth it.

When Pope John Paul's face finally flashed on screen, I forgot about the biting 2:00 am cold. All I can remember was how great it was to be surrounded by this kind of love - the love of one God, the love of one pope, the love of many people. The love that speaks of self-sacrifice, of giving, of forgiving. A love which, I will later continuously find out, is greater than nothing else.


One uneventful summer night in April of 2005, I woke up in a cold sweat, bawling my eyes out, surprised at what just happened inside my head. I dreamt of the Pope, knocking on the door of our house, strangely knowing who I am and where I lived. We talked on our couch, talking like new friends, but laughing like old ones. He asked me about my mom and my pop, how close I was with them, how they deserve my love and understanding, how lucky I was to be blessed with a family that is complete and secure. I remember him touching me on my shoulder, and suddenly feeling jolted - and before long tears were rushing out of my eyes.

I cried and moved to my mom's dressing room, unsure of how to take in the dream. It was so odd; it was summer and I wasn't worrying about anything big or serious.

The following day, news broke out that John Paul II had passed away.


Just this summer, during my internship, I experienced the lowest point thus far of my adult (and particularly law school) life. I remember feeling literally crippled at the thought that the future was no longer certain, that the past and the present suddenly might mean nothing. As my office was just several blocks away from Landmark, I found myself in their 5th floor chapel every evening, where a statue of the newly-canonized St. John Paul II was. I would pray to him, and ask for his intercession every single day, even went so far as to write letters to him in hopes of receiving the same grace he showered me with numerous times in the last two decades. No day went by without worry, but each one ended with a little sense of relief - that God is listening, that everything will be alright. That I had a friend up there who was helping me not lose sight of what's important and what truly matters.

A few months after my prayer was answered, I was in a mall with my family for my lolo's birthday when, after buying bread, the store-owner suddenly looked at me, smiled, and said, "God bless you." I thought it was a nice remark, but nothing out of the ordinary. To my surprise, however, she handed me a stampita. It had a prayer and a novena on it -- in honor of St. John Paul II, and his upcoming feast day, October 22. Just a few days shy of my birthday.


Now, seeing Pope Francis, feeling the tremendous and overwhelming sense of exuberance even through the screen, I can't help but have goosebumps. The Pope is still human. He is only a bringer of the Good News, only a Shepherd of the flock, only a representative of Jesus in the Church. He is not an idol, he is not God. That much I am aware of.

But he can be many things as well, if we let him be. He can be the instrument of change, he can be a symbol of hope. He can be the voice that quells the doubts inside our hearts, he can be the light that guides our way home. He is a person of love and compassion, and he is only more than welcome to be a part of our lives, if only we let him.

I wish I had a story to share about Pope Benedict XVI too. But anyway, I don't claim to be special or particularly blessed just because I've had these experiences with His Holiness. I wouldn't even dare call them personal encounters. But they're moments I've had, and they're moments I treasure. They've deepened my faith and my understanding of my Church. I'm not a perfect Catholic - I've had my doubts, questions, and troubles too. However, I'm glad to have had reasons to still stay and stand firm in my beliefs, the Pope(s) definitely being one of the biggest in my book. I'd like to believe I'm a better person for the changes, big and small, their presence has done for me.


Benvenuto, Pope Francis!