Chasing Papa in Manila

The Stories Behind the Story

Rev. José Mario O. Mandía
in Manila, Philippines

“ Don’t worry, Father, HE is still there,” the flight purser assured me as I prepared to step out from the plane. He was referring to the Pope of course. The Holy Father’s plane from Sri Lanka had landed at 5:45 PM, and ours (like many others) had to be delayed for security reasons. Upon landing, we found ourselves in a queue of planes that were waiting to be assigned their respective bays. No one complained.

We had only decided to cover the Pope’s visit last December, when the media committee head of the organizing committee, Bishop Mylo Hubert Vergara, was in Macau for a conference of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences. He encouraged us to apply for press accreditation online. The process was simple but I could see that the people in the organizing committee were doing a thorough and professional job. But we did not receive the accreditation before our flight. It would later prove to be a blessing.

The next day, Friday, we decided to see how to get our press passes. We went to the Manila Cathedral where Pope Francis was celebrating Mass with bishops, priests, and nuns in attendance. As we worked our way through the thick crowd that had surrounded the cathedral, we saw many who followed the ceremony through television. Many people huddled round the TV sets in little shops and eateries, and were very attentive particularly during the Holy Father’s homily. I thought that only a Manny Pacquiao match could attract such attention.

After asking around, we were redirected to the Diamond Hotel where the daily press conferences were being held. We had to walk part of the way because all traffic was blocked. Along the way, we passed big screens around which people had congregated to watch the Pope. We bumped into Tomasz Sajewicz, the Beijing Chief Correspondent of Polish radio, who was willing to share some of his thoughts. Finally we got to hail a taxi halfway through. The driver was also listening to the Pope! In fact, that afternoon, after the meeting with families, as we sat for dinner in a restaurant, there was a family in the table across us who were discussing the Pope’s speech. I thought, “ Wow!” A few members of the foreign media reported that it was just going to be one more emotional encounter. They were mistaken. People were intent on what the Pope had to say.

Once we got to the hotel, we were told that security checks had delayed the processing of the IDs, but we could get them in the afternoon. As I said, it was all providential, because Seán-Patrick Lovett, head of Vatican Radio in English was there and was willing to share some of his time with us.

As we spoke with Seán, someone I thought I recognized passed by. It was John Allen, of Crux, a Boston Globe Media affiliate. Allen also reports for CNN on the Vatican. He also gave some valuable insights. Then there was one more person we could speak to about China-Vatican relations. All in one afternoon.

One thing that struck me in this apostolic visit was the thorough television coverage. Anyone watching television at home, or through the internet, or through the big screens installed in the major venues and along the routes of the papal motorcade could follow the Pope as he left the gates of the Nunciature where he was staying, all the way to the site of the event without losing sight of him – there was no need to guess where he was. I think this was one factor that helped prevent stampedes. It must have taken massive coordination and pooled resources to put together the biggest event ever hosted in the Philippines. Filipinos can work together after all. This was one big miracle that Pope Francis wrought.

There was a second miracle. The day before the Sunday Mass at the Luneta, people had started walking toward the venue at 7 PM. We decided to leave the house at 3 AM. There was a traffic jam! Fortunately, we were able to park close enough. I watched as people walked in earnest haste. That surprised me. It was my first time to see my countrymen walking with a sense of urgency to an appointment that was to take place ten hours later! That’s the second miracle.

The third miracle is that everyone fell in line with no complaints, and without jumping the queue. Well, I thought, this visit is transforming an entire nation. What a grace! Now if we can only put it into practice daily.

Cardinal Tagle of Manila himself admitted, “ This event is really an act of communion and solidarity. It is a miracle in itself,” he said. “ All of us are overwhelmed right now with thanksgiving to God. We were able to show the world that it is possible – communication, cooperation, collaboration – these are not just ideas, they can be put into action.”

Yes, there were glitches. One of them was the distribution of communion during the Sunday Mass. Video clips showed faithful passing on the Sacred Host to people behind them. Surely, a better procedure can be planned next time to ensure that due reverence is given to the Blessed Sacrament.

Six million people in Manila braved wind and rain, and perhaps close to a million in Leyte stood in prayer in the midst of a typhoon – it was a sight to behold and a memory worth keeping.


Antolin Adlawan, a 66-year-old man, walked from his province of Bukidnon to Leyte for 36 days, spending Christmas and New Year on the road, sleeping wherever he could just to see the Holy Father. He even braved a tropical storm which brought flash-floods and landslides to the Visayas and Mindanao regions in December 2014. His only rest was to read the Bible. Why did he do this? He was giving thanks to God for keeping his daughter alive for 26 years. She was still a baby when she was diagnosed of leukemia.

The Holy Father used three kinds of Popemobile. In Manila, he used an Isuzu D-Max made and customized in the Philippines and another popemobile styled after the jeepney. In Leyte, he road aboard the popemobile that was used in Korea. The Holy Father apparently liked the Isuzu D-Max so it was decided to ship it to the Vatican so the Pope can use it there as well. Edgard Cabagon, Managing Director of Isuzu Makati Gencars Inc., the company which made the popemobile remarked, “ It is a labor of love.” He added that the people who worked on the vehicle gave it their best.

Then there were the little stories of how Pope Francis cared for the people around him.

Tippy Tambunting, pastry chef for the papal entourage at the Nunciature, was requested by the Pope to prepare a birthday cake for Vatican reporter Valentina Alazraki, a Mexican journalist covering the Vatican, who was celebrating her birthday on the flight back to Rome. The Pope instructed Tippy not to put any candles, and also to write the greetings in Spanish.

Other people who served at the Nunciature noted that the Pontiff was always smiling, though they knew he was very tired. They also noted that the Pope wanted everyone to eat together.

The flight crew that brought him to back to Rome remarked at how simple and innocent he was, so approachable. He wanted no special treatment, no special meals. “ He ate what we ate,” said one of them.

Dan Lichauco designer of the altar used in Leyte said they had prepared a raincoat specially for the Holy Father, but he wanted to use the same kind of raincoat that the people were wearing.

Some people outside the gate of the Nunciature were allowed to go inside with their children. He gave them rosary beads. And before the Pope left, he asked them to bring their families so that he could bless them before he left.

Pope Francis had wanted to attend the wake of Kristel Mae Padasas, the volunteer who died in a freak accident shortly after a papal Mass in Tacloban last Saturday, but it would have created a security problem. So he had to forego it.

When one lady was asked what she liked about the Pope, she said, “ It’s the smile. It comes from the heart.” On the flight back to Rome, the Holy Father said that one of the things that struck him was the smile of the people: “ not feigned joy. It wasn’ t a false smile. No, no! It was a smile that just came out,” he said. It was a smile that came from the heart. Perhaps this is what explains the closeness between Pope and people. Heart was speaking unto heart.

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