His five days spent in our Country has seen much of the Metro grind to a halt and has also seen such an outpouring of love and devotion that I, for one, have certainly never witnessed. As a non-Catholic I have always been a tad skeptical of the Catholic Church and its trappings of great wealth and great power. I am now a convert. The Papacy, in the form of Pope Francis, has given me renewed hope for the future of the Catholic Church. This Pope personifies everything that a religious leader should be; caring, loving, deeply committed to his flock and most of all full of humanity, humility, mercy and compassion. I can honestly say that there were times in the past few days when I have been moved incredibly deeply by the depth of feelings generated within me by Francis' words.
To say that the 80 million Catholics in this country have taken Papa Francisco (or Lolo Kiko) to their hearts, minds and souls would be a total understatement. From the second he stepped out from the Sri Lankan airline's plane and his skullcap blew off, the entire country has taken this man to their hearts. Filipino's love and adore their Pope.
I, along with six or seven million other Filipino's (the number varies depending on who you listen to) made the trek on Sunday to celebrate an open air mass at the Quirino Grandstand, with their beloved Papa Francisco. I agreed to go with my darling wife for a number of reasons, but principal among those was the idea that only once in my lifetime would I probably have a chance to be part of something as big, as momentous and as powerful as this - upwards of seven million people all converging on one place with the same self purpose; to celebrate their faith. I wanted to experience this just once in my life, so we determined to go.
To give those of you outside of The Philippines some idea of the experience of being part of such a blessed event, I'll do my meager best to describe what it felt like to be a part of that moving sea of humanity and why it means so very much to every Filipino who attended or lined the streets to cheer and wave at the Pope's motorcades over these five days.
Far and away the most important reason for all these people to have flocked to see and to hear Pope Francis, however, is their deep and abiding faith. Don't let anyone tell you that the Filipino is drifting away from the Church. Yes, Masses may not be as well attended as in previous years (although many more still attend Mass regularly than in any other country), but deep within the Filipino heart is an unshakable belief in the power of the Almighty and the sure and certain belief that God will look after them. They are a deeply religious people and although there is a veneer of urban sophistication on the surface, especially here in the Metro, always very close beneath is their faith. Scratch the veneer even slightly and you will see their true faith and beliefs emerge.
By the time Thess and I had maneuvered our way from the entrance at Luneta Park, through innumerable checkpoints, barriers and seemingly impenetrable walls of people, to our final spot to the right of the Quirino Grandstand, several hours had passed. We found a good spot to sit, within one of the quadrants by around 10am and just as we settled down to pass the time until the mass at 3.30pm, the rain began - a rain that did not cease for the remainder of the day. Both of us were ill-prepared for this blessing from the skies, in just light clothes and no raincoats - before long we were thoroughly drenched and extremely cold. Fortunately we decided to try and move a little closer to the stage, which we were successful in doing, and we were able to seek some partial shelter from the rain under a tree. There we waited the hours until the Pope's arrival. We were cold, we were wet, and we were extraordinarily uncomfortable - but we were there and we were so happy to be so!
What are my most abiding memories of Pope Francis' visit. To be honest there are just so, so many moving moments that it would be hard to pick just a few. Both Thess and I found ourselves glued to the television for the entire time he was here. We just couldn't stop watching what was so incredibly compelling. Both of us were frequently deeply moved by what we witnessed and heard in front of our eyes on the excellent almost round-the-clock coverage. If I were to summarize just a few highlight for me personally, they would be:
2/ Just as the Pope arrived at Quirino Grandstand, we along with everyone else rushed forward, cell phones held high, hoping to catch a glimpse and get a precious photo of the Pontiff. Just in front of me was a young man, perhaps in his early twenties. Like me he was dressed only in a t-shirt and shorts and like me he was dripping wet. What drew my attention to him was he was shivering from head to toe. His lips where quivering wildly, his hands were shaking uncontrollably and I'm pretty sure even his knees were knocking. The man was freezing, but it was his face that drew my attention. His mouth was split in an enormous grin, he was laughing with a sheer unabashed joy and his eyes shone with a light that gave away the happiness, of the moment, that was within him. For me, this one event encapsulated what the visit of Pope Francis meant to ordinary Filipinos. No suffering was too much for even just a mere glimpse of the leader of their Faith. I was moved deeply by this young man's complete and utter devotion to his faith.
3/ The Mass at Tacloban Airport: We watched on television, as Tropical Storm Amang battered the crowds, the Pope and all who attended that amazing Mass at the Airport. The Pope was absolutely determined that he had to visit Tacloban and comfort the victims of Typhoon Yolanda and the Bohol Earthquake. I remember commenting to Thess as we watched the Mass unfold amid the wind and the rain - it is almost appropriate that this Mass is played out amid another Tropical disturbance. It will give the Pope just a small feel of what the survivors endured.
5/ The Mass at the University of Santo Tomas: Francis spoke so movingly of a young girl's question - a question delivered through a veil of tears. "Why do the children always have to suffer?" was her question of the Pope. His answer was both meaningful and moving. He reminded us all that until we learn to truly weep ourselves, at the injustices of our world, we can never understand or change the suffering of the people, especially of the children. We must learn to cry and to be moved by their suffering before we can act.
6/ Finally, the response of a Father to the loss of his only daughter gave us such great insight into the depth of faith of the Filipino. Sadly, a young volunteer was killed when a scaffold fell on her at the completion of the Tacloban Mass amid the furious winds and rain of Tropical Storm Amang. When Pope Francis returned to Manila he asked to meet the young girl's Father (her Mother was working in Hong Kong as an Overseas Foreign Worker (OFW). She was their only daughter and during the meeting her Father explained to Francis that he had planned to watch the Papal Visit only on television, but that his beloved daughter had organised for him to meet the Holy Father. The Pope's response to the bereaved Father was relayed to us by Cardinal Tagle. He was so moved by the Father's comments, the Cardinal told us, that his only words were: "Such Faith - Such Faith".
There is little left to say about these five very special days in the life of this Country. Papa Francisco we are richer for your visit, we are stronger for your visit and most of all we are empowered and emboldened by your words and actions. May the power of love and peace that settle over this Country for the five days you graced us with your presence, last forever. You gave us all a little piece of yourself, and for that we are all eternally grateful.
LOLO KIKO - WE LOVE YOU!
PAPA FRANCISCO - MAHAL NG FILIPINO!