Meeting St. John Paul II

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Monday, April 28, 2014


SAINT John Paul II wasn’t the “pilgrim pope” for nothing. He visited 129 countries, travelled over a million kilometers, and is said to have personally met more people than any other person in history.

He came to the Philippines twice as pope and even put Bacolod in his travel map in 1981 at a time when no other world leader of his stature has ever visited this city, whose airport was so small it could hardly accommodate even two commercial planes at the same time.

In his lifetime, he has given many the privilege of meeting him in person and experiencing his charisma up close and personal.

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Those who shared their stories with us here met him under various circumstances, but they are one in saying that their encounters with this saint left them quivering in awe because of how truly personal it was.

His former secretary Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz once said that for Pope,John Paul II, to meet another person is to encounter God. And that is what made this man and new saint so great.

Fr. Nitodel Soriano, priest & professor

In 1981, Pope John Paul II visited Tondo, Manila’s largest slum. My family lived in Binondo where I was an acolyte at the Basilica of the Most Holy Rosary. I was one of the three acolytes selected to offer flower bouquets. As it turned out, there were no flowers but replicas of fishing boats made by the fisherfolks of Tondo.

The organizer removed our sotana so we may appear as children of fishermen! I remember the pope giving a powerful speech to the poor of Tondo but honestly, I cannot remember what he said to me while he laid his hands on me. All I remember was my heart filled with joy and that left a profound mark in my life.

I was so inspired to offer my life to God and so I became a priest. In 2005, while I was in Rome after my licentiate studies, I met him the second time. We embraced, and it was such a grace-filled moment that will remain in my heart for as long as I live.

We spent only five minutes in conversation, but it felt like an eternity. I returned to Bacolod to become a professor of the JP II National Institute where I continue to spread his theology and teachings.

Chida Sian-Reyes, full-time mother and wife

Saint John Paul II is very dear to me. I was only seven when he came to visit Bacolod and I had the opportunity to join 50 children from different schools who danced at the Mass held at the Reclamation.

During the offertory procession, we danced and sang the Ilonggo version of “Kunin Mo, O Diyos.”

My parents, sister and I later joined Bishop Antonio Y. Fortich in sending off the pope at the airport. He placed his hands over my sister’s head, then mine. I think he told my Mom, “You have a beautiful family.” I felt excited because I knew he was an important figure.

Ever since we got married in 2002, my husband Robert and I had been trying to conceive. I always had a special affinity to PJP II, so we prayed to him so we may be blessed with a child. Our prayers were answered, and our son Jake was born in 2012, after 10 years of trying! This year, we initially planned on traveling to Switzerland, but when we heard that PJPII was going to be canonized, we made an effort to include Rome in our itinerary.

We wanted to honor him, give thanks and request him for another miracle: to give Jake a sister or a brother.

Joey Kilayko-Montalvo, industry stakeholder relations manager

My dad was City Mayor (of Bacolod) when the Pope came to Bacolod in 1981. I was at the airport, standing near a platform used for the arrival ceremony. As the Pope stepped foot on the platform, I thought of a way to get his attention. Beside me was a mother carrying a baby, so I grabbed the baby from her and held him up for His Holiness.

My little stunt worked! He blessed the baby with a sign of the cross on the forehead and then he held my hand. Of course I returned the baby to his mother who was also profusely thankful for what I did.

Later at the San Sebastian Cathedral, the Pope blessed and dedicated a memorial for the victims of the M/S Don Juan which sank just nine months before. The M/S Don Juan tragedy that claimed four members of our family and affected most Negrense families may have been one of the reasons why the Pope chose to visit, along with the crash of the sugar industry and the dismal economic situation at that time.

This valuable photo of my dad and the pope established the very personal connection of our family to this new saint.

How do I feel that we’ve met a person who is now a saint? Of course, it is such a rare privilege. It’s like having been “chosen” along with many others that he touched during his visit.

Bopeep Golez, Religious Education instructor

I will never forget that day, August 27, 1999 at Castel Gandolfo. I joined the Bacolod delegation who were observers at the Study Week of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.

There were around a hundred of us, including delegates from other countries. There was talk going around that we may not be allowed to approach him because he was already quite weak and couldn’t meet too many people. Each time a country’s delegation was called, our hopes to see him dimmed.

But soon, we were called. We were elated; it was like a dream! Archbishop Scola, President of the Institute, told the Holy Father that we were the group from the Filippine. Immediately, he gave a wide smile. That’s an image I can never erase from my memory. He really loved the Philippines.

As we knelt in front of him and kissed his hand, he looked at each one of us so intently. His aura was so powerful and I felt my heart was about to burst! Then he gave each one of us a rosary. To have been given this chance to be in his presence was a blessing and a grace. It sealed our commitment to establish the Institute in Bacolod and work in the ministry of Marriage and Family. I not only share his life and teachings about the person, marriage and family to my students, but they also serve as my anchor when I am beset by my own personal trials.

Rose Jessica F. Octaviano, peace & mental health advocate

January 13, 1995 was a very memorable day for me. It was the day I received Holy Communion from Pope John Paul II, whom I never imagined would one day become saint. I was a delegate of the International Youth Forum, a gathering at UST of about 200 young people from all over the world before the World Youth Day.

As the youth formator of Paghiliusa sa Paghidaet (PsPN), I was asked to represent Pax Christi Pilipinas and surely, this is the experience that left a mark in my life forever. The pope was scheduled to celebrate Mass. When he entered the UST chapel, I felt goose bumps and I just started crying.

Tears of joy. Tears of inexplicable feelings. Happiness, if you will. I felt an air of holiness about him, like he was so near to God. I don’t have the words to describe the feeling. Just amazing, amazing grace. We received Holy Communion from him and had the chance to talk to him when he gave us rosaries.

I can’t recall what we talked about, just that it was about positive things. It was really an incredible experience. It is God’s gift to me. I feel so blessed. Yes, I am blessed.

Ria de Villa-Montelibano, wife, mother, daughter of first woman ambassador of the Philippines to the Holy See, Ambassador Henrietta Tambunting de Villa

Early that day in Rome, the 6th of July 1996, my de Villa clan was up and ready, excited and a wee bit nervous. We were dressed as Vatican protocol dictated: the ladies were in elegant, long black dresses with black veils and long sleeves, while the men wore black suits. Mom was the newly appointed Philippine Ambassador to the Holy See and it was her big day.

The Presentation of Credentials at the Vatican was to be at 11 in the morning. It was the first time for any of us to enter the private apartments of the Pope. My sisters and I were giddy, enthralled by the grandeur and majesty of the halls and salas. It was breathtakingly surreal!

When the ceremony began, Pope John Paul II affectionately welcomed my Mom and they spoke privately. Then Mom presented us to him one by one. The giddiness I felt earlier was replaced by a tightening of my heart. I felt I was going to have a heart attack, but a wonderful one!

I kissed his hand and he put his other hand on top of mine. He met my husband and my son whom he kissed and blessed. Then he gave each one of us a rosary. I wasn’t as prayerful then as I am now, but I remember thinking that this was as near to God as I’ll ever be in this life, and John Paul II’s aura of goodness and holiness found me humbled and joyful!

Msgr. Toto Suplido, priest

I was the Social Action Director of the Bacolod Diocese when Pope John Paul II came for his pastoral visit in 1981. Bishop Antonio Y. Fortich designated me as the liaison officer for the military to handle security and logistics for the papal visit. I quite remember how difficult it was to pull this off because after all, we were not even the seat of an archdiocese.

Many bishops were a bit incensed that the pope chose to include Bacolod in his itinerary but Bishop Fortich shrugged it off saying “the Holy Father is not coming to Bacolod to see tourist spots; he wants to see the problems of the people.”

It was Martial Law, a time of social ferment in Negros, and there was such a massive social divide. So it was here where he delivered one of the most powerful messages he made in behalf of the poor, saying: “the church will not hesitate to take up the cause of the poor and to become the voice of those who are not listened to when they speak up, not to demand charity, but to ask for justice.” People were astounded for a variety of reasons.

I saw then that this pope came not for some meaningless blessing to a crowd, but to affirm what the Church and Bishop Fortich was doing in the service of the poor.

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on April 28, 2014.

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