We are a people of dialogue. As such we have the moral obligation to search for the truth in freedom, the truth about God, about life, about ourselves, our country, our society, our world and the events around us.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Random Thoughts on the Funeral of Pope John Paul II

Many Filipinos share the conviction of millions of people that John Paul II was a saint. This was my feeling before we left for Rome on the evening of April 6, 2005.

On my way to the airport I was receiving through texts and calls requests for prayers. Friends were asking me to pray to the Pope for certain important intentions. The requests were accompanied with what I first thought was a bit of humor: “Don’t take a bath before seeing us – ok?” It later dawned on me as the desire for a vicarious experience, a second hand experience. They were trying to tell me that through me as an eyewitness they were expecting to feel the same way I felt when I was there in the Vatican. This was later confirmed by personal requests to share after we arrived back from Rome. And those who couldn’t meet and hear me were asking for “souvenirs” of the funeral. This is the reason why I am writing this narrative—to share thoughts that people can also vicariously experience.

We left Manila around 11 P.M. on board a Philippine Airline Airbus jet as part of the Philippine delegation to the funeral. We were four bishops, one priest, three religious sisters and one lay woman among the 70 entourage of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Because of short notice this was the only number we could get to represent Church people.

We arrived in Rome early morning of April 7. We proceeded to the Collegio Filippino to get properly attired. Then we went to the Philippine Embassy right beside St. Peter’s Square which was already swarmed and circled with long lines of people. After picture taking with the Philippine ambassador to the Holy See, Mrs. Leonida Vera, we walked to St. Peter’s Basilica passing by the side of the huge cathedral. Upon seeing us in black cassock with pectoral cross and purple skullcap the Swiss guards saluted us and allowed us into the Church. Our companions were allowed to come along.

Inside St. Peter’s we were able to kneel and pray near the lifeless body of John Paul which was about two meters in front of us. On my knees on the floor I prayed to John Paul for the intentions of those who texted and called me before departing Manila. I prayed for my mother, brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces. I prayed for the clergy, religious and lay faithful of Davao City. And also for my work in interreligious dialogue, a ministry so dear to John Paul.

After praying, I kept my eyes focused on the body of John Paul. Thoughts began to rush in. I recalled the many times we met in the past: The one-on-one conversation during my Ad Limina visit, the mass we said together in his private chapel on the occasion of my silver jubilee as a priest in 1986, and the several audiences in Rome after the meeting of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue where I am still a member since 1991, and of course the lunches we had with him in 1996, 1998 and 2003. I wanted to stay the longer on my knees there but the papal security was beckoning us to leave as many were waiting to get in.

Walking on the way back to the Philippine Embassy, I was interviewed twice by a media team from Italy and from Spain in English and Spanish respectively. The questions were the same: What was the legacy of John Paul to the Philippines? My answer was the challenge to share Jesus Christ to our Asian neighbors. After the funeral I was also interviewed by media from Panama about John Paul being a saint. I said definitely yes.

That evening of Thursday, April 7, 2005 I was invited by the Ambassador to concelebrate the Mass at 7:00 P.M. at the Basilica of St. Mary Major. Cardinal Vidal was supposed to be the presider but he couldn’t make it. The cardinals were having their meeting in the Vatican. The basilica was filled with Filipinos, about 2,000 of them. About 60 priests concelebrated. I presided and gave the homily. Ambassador Vera introduced President Arroyo who gave a beautiful tribute to John Paul II. As we made our exit for the recessional I was swarmed by Filipinos trying to kiss both of my hands, a custom foreigners find strange. Cardinal Bernard Law, retired Archbishop of Boston, attended to our needs and was in attendance during the celebration. It was a humble gesture from a cardinal who was attired in his scarlet robes.

Friday, April 8, 2005 at 10 A.M. was the announced date and time of the funeral mass for the Holy Father. Since all streets around the Vatican were closed from 2 A.M. to 10 P.M. we had to go there early. So we went at 6 A.M. It was difficult to get near the basilica. We had to walk for half a kilometer to reach St. Peter’s Square.

Thousands of people were already on the streets very early and edging slowly towards the square. Only those with tickets were allowed through the police barricades. We edged our way slowly until we were under the colonnades. We were the early ones on the spot near the altar in front of the basilica, about three meters away from the left of the altar if you are facing the church.

Slowly the bishops and cardinals began to arrive in their purple and scarlet robes. I forgot my purple robes, so I wore my black cassock with purple piping, skullcap and pectoral cross, still looking formally attired. The breeze was cool and gave a little discomfort to some. I had my sweater under my cassock and a thermal underwear. So it was bearable.

Then the VIPs began to arrive through the main door of St. Peter. It was very touching to see hundreds of heads of State and their representatives in formal attire. Then came the leaders of the different religions of the world. This was the first moving moment for me. It dawned on me that here and now at this moment almost all major races and cultures of the world are represented. This is virtual union and communion of all peoples as the Scriptures speak of. Then came a staggering thought that made me shudder a bit: Isn’t this the end of the world? It was just a sudden, passing thought. I recalled the time in October 1999 when the Holy Father invited 250 world leaders of religion to the Vatican. I brought along a Muslim from Jolo. When he saw this crowd of religious leaders in different attires and speaking different languages he remarked to me with misty eyes: “Monsignor, this must be the end of the world.”

Another touching moment was when the multitudes interrupted Cardinal Ratzinger’s homily and filled the square with repeated shouts of “Santo Subito” (Saint Immediately). But the most touching moment was when the wooden coffin was being carried into the basilica amidst thunderous applause. I didn’t clap my hands. I simply waved towards the coffin while some bishops began to stand on top of their chairs applauding intensely. When the coffin bearers stopped and turned around to make the body face the multitudes, the applause grew louder. I could see many with handkerchief wiping their tears away. It was an emotional moment that seemed to shake your body and yet you felt uplifted, peaceful, happy, and grateful that you were there.

Unlike the feeling of loss when the burial here is over, I felt as if the saintly John Paul is still around. He did not disappear into nothingness. His spirit lives on in the lips, hearts, and minds of many for many days, months, and years to come. For me this is easily possible. I was there as an eyewitness to the unfolding of an historic event in the life of the Church.

But for others, they need a souvenir to keep that spirit alive and fresh. Watching television, listening to the radio, and reading newspapers were not enough. Some people asked for formal account of the event, and for souvenirs of the Pope’s funeral.

I brought home a photo of the Holy Father being embraced by Our Lady of Guadalupe. Before deciding to have copies for distribution, I checked the authenticity of the miracle in photography. Sr. Luisa Prandina, Superior General of the Daughters of St. Anne, who had been assigned in Mexico for many years, confirmed the photographic miracle. She said that a photographer took a photo of the pope inside the Cathedral in Mexico. When the film was developed, it shows the pope’s head resting on the shoulder of the Blessed Mother who has her hands around the pope in a maternal embrace.
I had the photo multiplied and distributed after my homily last April 11 at the solemn funeral Mass for the Holy Father in our Cathedral in Davao. We’ll have it published in the CBCP Monitor.

Perhaps through the written words and photo the Spirit may inspire the reader to experience vicariously a rare spiritual moment that happens but once in a life time. It was a moment that seemed to usher us into eternity when time is no more. And perhaps this is the reason why Rome has been traditionally called the Eternal City, timeless, ageless, like heaven. Mysteries connected with God and eternity were being celebrated there in human symbols. Being there made me feel eternity shining into time!

Archbishop of Davao
President, Catholic Bishops’ Conference

April 17, 2005