Reminiscing JP II

SEVERAL MAJOR events in the last 10 days deserve analysis and comment. There was the fairy tale wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. There was Labor Day and its relevance to globalization. There was the sudden surrender of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez and its consequences. There were worthy appointments, like that of Augusto Lagman to the Commission on Elections, and Teresita Herbosa to the Securities and Exchange Commission. There was the death of Osama bin Laden. And there was the beatification of Pope John Paul II.

Vada and Miggy. But today, I have space only to reminisce on JP II. I first met him during his visit here on Jan. 12-16, 1995. I was a member of the Arrival and Departure Committee, chaired by Ambassador Tita de Villa. I remember that during the many rehearsals for the Pope’s arrival at the old Manila International Airport, Archbishop Carmelo D. F. Morelos, then president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, played the role of JP II while I acted the role of President Fidel V. Ramos.

During our practice walk from the plane to the arrival kiosk, the effervescent archbishop joked, “This rehearsal is very prophetic. You will be president of our country someday.” “No, Excellency,” I replied, “I think the correct prophecy is you will be pope!”

JP II’s visit was “pastoral” in nature, that is, he came as head of the Catholic Church, and not as sovereign of the Vatican State. Nonetheless, President Ramos received him officially on behalf of our government. On behalf of the Church, he was welcomed at the airport by two children, 7-year-old Vada de Villa Rodriguez (granddaughter of Tita) and 5-year-old Miggy Panganiban Sandejas (my grandson).

Vada gave JP II a huge garland and a poem she composed. Miggy gifted him with a crayola-colored caricature titled “Viva il Papa!” drawn by him and his friends, and a “salakot” which the Pope gamely tried on his head, to the applause of the crowd.

Dancing at the tarmac as the Pope’s Alitalia plane taxied in were 1,500 schoolchildren. They flipped multi-colored cards showing alternately the Vatican flag and a huge red heart. They belted a new song, “Viva,” composed by Barbi Dumlao, daughter of Santiago Dumlao Jr., another member of our committee. JP II was so thrilled by the reception that he broke security protocols and waded into the sea of beaming children. Though momentarily taken aback, President Ramos gamely tailed the Pontiff.

Lucky year. Neither of our “prophecies” came true. Archbishop Morelos did not become pope and I did not become president. But 1995 was still lucky for me, because later that year, President Ramos appointed me to the Supreme Court, and JP II named me a member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity (PCL).

The PCL was composed of 30 Catholic leaders chosen by the Pope from various parts of the world to advise him on “all matters regarding the Christian life of the faithful.” For the 1996-2001 term, I was the only Filipino member. We met at least once a year in the Vatican. These meetings gave me (and my wife Leni who accompanied me) the opportunity to appreciate all the more the “holiness shield” of JP II.

Hallowed were these meetings with JP II because, until I got married, I had no idea of my religion. I went to public schools and a non-sectarian university. I had no catechetical upbringing. In fact, my application at a Catholic university was refused. As a prerequisite to an entrance scholarship, I was interviewed by an old priest who posed three questions. “How many Gods are there?” he asked. “One,” I readily replied. “How many persons are there in one God?” He followed up. “Three,” I answered. Then, came the crucial question, “Name them.” Believe it or not, I did not know the answer. So, I sheepishly whispered, “Jesus, Mary, Joseph.” Yes, I failed the test miserably.

I took this rebuff as a challenge and crammed on studying and experiencing my faith. Later, by some miracle and as pure gift from God, this Catholic ignoramus who did not even know the three persons of the Holy Trinity became an adviser of the Holy Father as a PCL member.

Manila Cathedral-Basilica. Thirty years ago, on April 27, 1981, JP II elevated the Manila Cathedral to a Basilica. Three years ago, Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, Archbishop of Manila, noticed the structural deterioration of the basilica and asked for help to restore and rehabilitate it.

In response, the Manila Cathedral-Basilica Foundation was organized. As an initial project, the foundation brought down the seven huge bells from the belfry tower and installed them in a new belfry garden. In their place, it set up a P5 million electronic carillon especially made in the Netherlands, donated by Alberto and Sylvia Lina and their family. Manuel Siy and Ramon Gabaldon donated the Ground Belfry.

The Ground Belfrey and the Carillon were inaugurated last April 27 in remembrance of JP II’s beatification. The complete rehabilitation and reconstruction plans are still being designed by architect William Coscolluela, Dr. Angel Lazaro and project manager Dennis Abcede.

The foundation needs about P200 million to complete its work. Tasked to raise this sum is its board of trustees composed of Cardinal Rosales as chair; Ambassador de Villa, vice-chair; yours truly, president; Inquirer chair Marixi Prieto, vice president; Msgr. Nestor Cerbo, executive director-treasurer; Cecille Alvarez, Fr. Domingo Asuncion, Fr. Rufino Cescon, Bishop Bernadito Cortez, Danny Dolor, Alex Fider, Cecile Oppen and Letty Syquia, trustees.

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