I’ve always dreamt about meeting the pope in person; it was one of my most cherished dreams. Since I was born wit John Paul II being at the helm of the Church, I always wanted to meet him personally; his death had thwarted those hopes for the meantime (I’m looking forward to meet him in heaven).
But when it was announced that Benedict XVI was going to Valencia in the summer of 2006 to conclude the fifth World Meeting of Families, I was excited at the opportunity that had presented itself, most especially when it was made known that he had reserved a special meeting with seminarians.
The affair in Valencia was slated for summer, during the first week of July. At that time I was working in a summer camp, teaching English to a group of unruly Spanish teenagers, in order to earn money in preparation for my diaconal ordination and for the plane ticket back to the Philippines. The camp was held at El Poblado, a property owned by the Opus Dei, quite near to the only sanctuary properly owned by this personal prelature (the sanctuary of Our Lady of Torreciudad). It was designed to keep youngsters busy for three weeks during the summer months, allow them to learn a bit more of English, and for members of the Opus Dei, this was a fine opportunity to proselytize.
The seminary where I was studying in Pamplona had organized a trip to Valencia, to be there with the Holy Father when he came. For us who were out of town, we were to join the rest of the seminary community there. And so, with the rest of the summer camp (who also went to Valencia to meet up with the Prelate of Opus Dei, among other things), I made the four-hour drive to the capital of the Valencian province. The city was already packed with pilgrims and participants. The kids were accommodated in one of the centers of the Work, while I joined the rest of the seminarians from Bidasoa (as the seminary was called, short for Colegio Eclesiastico Internacional Bidasoa). It was a welcome respite, since being with a bunch of rowdy kids could be very stressful, starting from day one.
The Holy Father arrived in Valencia on July 8; from the airport there was a motorcade that lead him directly to the cathedral, where he was welcomed by the city’s notables. A great number of religious and clergy were waiting to meet him inside the cathedral. From the cathedral he walked the short distance to the adjacent basilica of Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados (Our Lady of the Forlorn), were he stood for a few moments in prayer.
I got my first real glimpse of him as he was crossing from the cathedral to the basilica: a distant figure dressed in white and red, with the white skullcap almost undistinguishable from his snowy white hair. When the people assembled in the plaza (we were there since seven in the morning) came to know that the Holy Father was within a few meters, we all became very excited. I was situated not far from the stage where he was about to appear. It was decorated with a huge mural of Our Lady; at the foot of the mural stood the throne where he was to occupy. There were a lot of seminarians coming from different parts of Spain as well.
After some minutes, about quarter of an hour perhaps, he finally came out to meet us. The Holy Father wasn’t very tall, and yet he had this presence that made him stand out. We all erupted into cheers as he waved at us. Finally, when he had settled on the throne he, addressed all present, but spared a few words for us seminarians that were gathered there. He talked to us about our vocation to the priesthood, and the great part that our parents played in the story of our vocation: the family is the best setting which best enables us to hear the call of the Lord and to accept the gift of a vocation. He also told us to live intensely the years of preparation in the seminary.
After the traditional prayer of the Angelus, he imparted to us his blessing, and then he was off. He passed quite near to where I was. Perhaps that was the time when I made the decision not to return to the Philippines without first passing through Rome. I told myself then, a seminarian about to be ordained, that this was not to be the last time that I would find myself with Benedict XVI.
(to be continued)