Thursday, January 15, 2015

In the Last Papal Visit

Pope John Paul II at the University of Santo Tomas in 1995 (Photo from UST)
The past days in Metro Manila have been a bit of a frenzy. It began late last year at the onset of the holiday season, a much anticipated time of the year for Filipinos. The already terrible traffic was aggravated by the holiday rush. A few days after the revelry to celebrate the new year, the feast of the Black Nazarene drew hundreds of devotees to Quiapo and nearby areas, one of the most fervent and chaotic shows of religiosity. A week after, a major event was set to take place, something special for a predominantly Catholic country like the Philippines. The church's highest official and spiritual leader, Pope Francis, is in the country. In the last few days, Metro Manila had a dry run of its traffic scheme for the visit, creating jams in many parts. Vehicles were rerouted. The glass walls of offices along the "papal route" were boarded up, anticipating large crowds. It seemed like an extension of the holidays. The normal flow of work has been disrupted, and there has been a nebulous feel of anticipation, as well as uncertainty hanging in the air.
The last time a pope visited the country was a good two decades ago, in January 1995, when Pope John Paul II arrived in the Philippines. The Catholic youth festival World Youth Day 1995 was also held here from Jan. 10 to 15, 1995, the first time in an Asian country, along with the International Youth Forum (IYF), which was held at the University of Santo Tomas.
I vaguely remember now whether I had actually seen the pope in person, who is a saint now, or not. I remember spending the night out in the open at the Rizal Park, together with fellow staff members of The Varsitarian, the UST student paper, and hundreds of others, the day before the pope arrived. I fell asleep on newspapers laid on the ground and woke up surrounded by a multitude of legs. People had poured in overwhelmingly. There were groups of youth from different countries arriving, waving their flags. That proved exciting for me. I had a strong childhood fascination for different countries and cultures. That's why I watched beauty pageants, and the Parade of Nations was my most favorite part.
The next encounter with the pope was at UST. As a tradition, popes visit the pontifical university when they go to the Philippines. I remember the huge crowds.
What I remember most about the last papal visit were the IYF delegates from different countries. As a member of the school paper, I had easy access to them. They were housed at the university. Even though classes were suspended, we were there every day, welcoming the delegates, waiting for them after their sessions, and making friends with them. It delighted us no end. We met young people from as far as Burkina Faso, Venezuela, the Netherlands, Norway, Lithuania, Russia, Lebanon, Paraguay and Swaziland, as well as from nearby countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. They also gravitated towards us, one of the few young people still in school. We acted as guides, touring them around whenever we could. We learned from each other.
The day some of them arrived we took them all the way to SM Megamall, then the best mall in the country. We were teenagers and knew no better. The African delegates shopped, from buying a Santo Nino image, which was a novelty to them, to CDs of pop stars. Norwegian Gunnell Sandanger though didn't explore much and later explained that they had malls back in Norway. The next time, we took some delegates to the nearby palengke, the smell of which nauseated a couple of delegates. Generally, we had fun. We talked and went around the campus. At night, we sang songs under the trees. We learned from one another, and we shared stories, curious of one another, of the littlest of things, of the places where we came from. There was genuine openness and offer of friendship.

In the end, I think, it is not whether you have seen the pope or not. It is how we interact with others and the friendships we form with other peoples. The pope has become a way to understanding and a desire to be a better us, to build a better world.  

Pope John Paul II waves to the huge crowd inside his Popemobile during the 1995 World Youth Day in Manila (Photo from UST)
A World Youth Day 1995 souvenir postcard
A special issue of The Varsitarian on the visit of Pope John Pal II in January 1995
The author’s papal visit media and IYF volunteer IDs

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