Referring to the older post, I wasn’t totally candid when I said one of my childhood dream was to see the Pope in person. You see, aside from that, I also wanted to go to Rome at least once in my life.
My diaconal ordination in April of 2007 signaled the beginning of the end of my stay in Pamplona (or so I thought back then). By the end of June I was expected to be back in the Philippines. But before doing so, I decided to fulfill this childhood dream, now that I was nearer than ever before to one of my dream cities (aside from Venice, Milan, and the Holy Land, which comes in the third place). After talking it over with another newly ordained deacon from Palo, then Rev. Marlon Cua, and arranging things with a priest who was then at that time finishing his masters in Social Communications in the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Fr. Amadeo Alvero, and (then) seminarian Christian Golong, we went to Rome by end of June.
We stayed in an apartment that was adjacent to the seminary Sedes Sapientiae, which was a kind of sister-seminary to Pamplona’s Bidasoa, though a bit younger. I remember that we touched down in Rome on the feast of St. Josemaría Escriva (June 26), and so one of the first things that we did after having placed our things in our lodgings was to go to the Prelatic Church of Our Lady of Peace, where the remains of the saint lie under the main altar. I was told before that the church—the “cathedral” of the Personal Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei—was quite small, but I hadn’t any idea how small it was until I came to visit it. It was really small, considering that it was supposed to a sort of “cathedral-church” of the Prelature. It was like a small chapel; even the main chapel of the Sacred Heart Seminary could contain it comfortably. But it was very beautiful and certainly very dignified. After venerating the remains of the saint, we went down to have a look at the crypt, where the first Prelate of the Opus Dei (Bishop Álvaro del Portillo) was buried, as well as the remains of Carmen, St. Josemaría’s sister.
After dinner, Fr. Amadeo took us to St. Peter’s. I was very excited, since up until then I’ve seen it in videos and read about it only in books. We boarded the bus and when we were quite near, we went the rest of the trip on foot. Suddenly, I was before the famous plaza and the façade of the great basilica. I could remember being very overwhelmed at the sight of it all. It was all so huge. I raised my eyes towards the Apostolic Palace, and saw that the windows of the Pope’s private apartments were all lighted. It was thrilling to know how close we were to the Holy Father at the moment. In the course of our stay there in the plaza, I could see the lights being put out one by one, until the last one was put out.
The next day, we made a tour of Rome’s basilicas, especially the four papal ones: St. Peter in the Vatican, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul-Outside-The-Walls. We started with the Vatican Basilica. It was all so huge, even the angels at the holy water stoops were gargantuan. More intense for me was when we went to the crypt underneath the big church, where the most recent popes are buried. Two years after John Paul II, the queue towards his grave was still quite long. This was the closest that I would be getting to him in this life, I said to myself as I joined the line that passed before his tomb. The feeling was intense, more so because of what this man meant for me. People would take of the “presence” and the “power” issuing from the place. Call me a subjectivist rationalist, but I think what I felt was more because of what this man meant for me and for my vocation.
After the tomb of John Paul II, I went to visit the tombs of other popes: John Paul I, Paul VI, John XXIII and Pius XII. I also went to the tomb of Pius XI. I couldn’t help but feeling awed at being so physically close to the remains of all of these men.
The highlight of the trip was not just that, however. We were able to celebrate the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in the very city where they made their supreme witness to the faith. As is well-known, on this day the Holy Father bestows the pallium on the new metropolitans appointed throughout the past year. At least there was one Filipino among those invested, the Archbishop of Davao, Romulo Valles.
When we went into St. Peter’s, we decided not to push further into the front, but instead contented ourselves at the back, near the entrance to the sacristy. It was a good decision, because it afforded us a view of the Holy Father as he went out. When the procession towards the altar started, everyone was serious, meditative. But after the Mass, more people were talking pictures and waving at the Pope or their archbishops.
As I had said, we were waiting at the end of the barricades, next to the entrance to the sacristy. Clad in clericals at the end of a line of lay people, we stood out from the rest; we were the last people the Pope would see before he final entered the sacristy. When the Pope was just a meter away from my reach, he turned and looked at me. For some moments we looked at each other, and I noted how warm and paternal his gaze was. I remembered this especially because it changed the way I considered him up until then. Clearly, earlier photographs of Cardinal Ratzinger didn’t do him justice, since they gave the impression of a stern German inquisitor. No, what I saw where the eyes of a gentle grandfather, who was smiling at me a meter away.
I broke the spell by doing a small inclination of the head. The Holy Father responded inclining his. Later on I would laughingly say that now I could be happy since the Pope had acknowledged my existence. I also jokingly say that that was the day the Pope finally got to see me.
(to be continued…)