Saturday, April 30, 2011

That Roman Summer, a visit to John Paul II, and a reflection on the meaning of a beatification

With the immediate countdown to the beatification John Paul the Great well underway, Rome has become once again the great meeting place of the world as its attention now shifts from London (which is now going back to its normal pace after yesterday's royal wedding fever) to the Eternal City, which some years ago was undergoing a veritable collapse during the funeral of this great pope. Now, a mere six years later, the city braces itself once again as it awaits the expected millions to converge for the tomorrow's event.

under the shadow of the night

Seeing images of the city which has become a real beehive of activity brings back to mind memories of my first trip to Rome during my ordination year. I was due to return to the Philippines after being gone for four years (though I took a three-month break after my second year) after successfully completing my theological studies at the University of Navarra in Pamplona (Spain). I was very eager to go home, and had enough of being away from home for so long (I secretly wished at that time that I never had to step back to the University again, a feeling which stays with me up until now, just to be honest) that I was thinking that this would be the only time I would be in Europe ever again, and come to think of it, this might as well the only time that I could be THIS close to Rome. So I really saw the urgent need to go to Rome before going back home. My classmate Fr. Marlon Cua (then a deacon like me, and who is currently assigned at the "laid-back" parish of V&G Subdivision Tacloban City) and I planned the trip which would eventually last for three days. The initial lap of the journey took us down to Barcelona and then a bit farther to Girona, where a plane would take us in a two-hour trip to Rome. We landed at the Ciampino Airport in Rome and since it was the feast of St. Josemaria, we went immediately to the Prelatic Church of Santa Maria de la Paz, in Villa Tevere, which serves as the headquarters of the Personal Prelature of the Opus Dei, and where the saint's remains are buried and venerated. We were housed at an extension of the Sedes Sapientiae seminary, which is managed by priest-formators of the Work.

The next day we went on a tour of the Vatican Museums, went to see the four papal basilicas, which was partly a tour and partly a pilgrimage, had pizza not far from the shadow of St. Peter's and gelato (a dream come true: to eat pizza and gelato sub umbra Petri). 

But that which really comes to mind most especially during these days was the time we were able to descend into the grottoes underneath the great basilica, the place where many popes were buried. I had always wanted to go to Rome to meet John Paul II in person, and here I was, about to fulfill another great dream. I would have wished to see him in person, with nothing else but the air between us, but with only a few feet, a cold, white slab of marble and layers between us it didn't matter. As I remember it, when I finally laid my gaze upon the slab that bore his name and which covered his remains, the whole grotto was hushed; pilgrims passed by, pausing a fraction of a second to whisper a prayer before moving on, allowing the next pilgrim to have his turn. The Pope had been buried for about two or three years then, and yet the line was still quite long and solid. I whispered a prayer, and then moved on to the tombs of other popes, who until then had only leaped up to me from the pages of the books and biographies which I ravenously devoured during the early years of my stay in the minor seminary: Pius XII, John Paul I, Paul VI. Upstairs where St. Pius X and Bl. John XXIII, all of them personal patrons of mine. Here they felt so alive, their presence so near. I didn't see them as distant figures I used to know from the pages of dusty books at the seminary library gathering dust and about which no one else cared about: here they were so alive. Right there, under the cool marble floor of the great basilica, standing upon the tomb of the Rock, in the dark silence of the Vatican grottoes, a place of hushed whispers, I had a glimpse of what it meant to belong to the communion of saints.

I guess this is what a beatification is also all about. Our God is not a God of the dead, but of the living. Some people may look down upon the veneration of the saints and their relics as something medieval (hey, what' swrong with the Middle Ages by the way?) and out of touch with the times, but it's so because in their mind, they think we Catholics commune with the dead. Our Catholic Faith begs to differ. These people live, and they continue to influence us, to help us, inspire us, and push us deeper into that life which is the communion of saints, otherwise called the Church of God.

Blessed John Paul the Great, pray for us!!!

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