I am not the most religious person you will ever meet. I grew up in an all-girls Catholic school and went to mass every Sunday with my family but it always felt like a chore. It was so rigid and rule-oriented. Don't do this, don't do that. Strict teachings and a strict upbringing. I found mass boring and the homilies 98% of the time, uninspiring. It felt and sounded to me like a routine with the priests merely going through the motions. We were asked to live our lives as saints and yet I would hear all these stories about priests abusing children left and right. I also met a lot of "devout fanatics" who spent most of their time praying but were the quickest to judge, chastise, condemn and discriminate. It was enough to turn me off Catholicism entirely and I stopped going to Church as soon as I was old enough to live on my own.
From what I learned in school, I knew Jesus was more flexible and forgiving. He was all about love and sharing but I hardly witnessed this in "Church". For me, it was mostly about teaching, preaching and forcing beliefs onto people. All talk, not so much action.
And then Pope Francis comes along.
It wasn't a big deal to me at first because prior popes never really had a significant impact on my life but when I stumbled upon this article on Distractify, I knew he was special. Finally, someone who teaches by example, someone who listens and doesn't judge, someone who understands where I come from and accepts it, someone who acknowledges the shortcomings of the Church and actually has the gall to call on it and seek change. His "normalcy" inspired me. I especially love the story about how he "breaks the rules" and sneaks out of the Vatican at night to feed the poor, how he sold his Harley to fund a soup kitchen and hostel in Rome. What?! A pope with a Harley who sneaks out at night? Now, that's my kinda pope. Medyo "Bad Boy". :P Kidding aside though, I am immensely impressed at how Pope Francis was able to shift the focus back to what being a true Catholic is all about in such a short span of time. He is my first Catholic hero and I wasn't about to miss the chance to meet him.
We woke up at 2am on January 18 to avoid the massive crowds that were expected to attend the concluding mass later in the day. By the time we got to Roxas Blvd., Quirino Highway was already closed so we had to walk the rest of the way. We entered via Maria Orosa just a few minutes short of the stampede. The crowds were already getting thick by then and there was some pushing and shoving involved so I was afraid for the safety of my family. Thank God we made it safely.
When we got inside, the quadrants behind us were still empty:
Because Dennis had work there, we were able to stay in a private tent behind the media bleachers. It was cramped but at least we had a roof over our heads:
But still, we were grossly unprepared. Because of the many do's and don'ts, we didn't pack enough food or water in the fear that they might just be confiscated. This is also why I didn't have my camera with me, just my phone. Also, the clothes we were wearing were better suited for humid weather.
We ended up sharing a small bottle and a half of mineral water between the 4 of us for the entire duration of the day: 5:00am-6:00pm (which was okay since going to the portalet to relieve ourselves was a nightmare.)
(As was expected, there weren't enough portalets, the lines were extremely long, the stench was horrendous. There were no concession stands, I only saw one Manila Water/Maynilad tent where you could get a refill. The event was extremely lacking in coordination and a lot of the policemen stationed there were rude and on some warped and twisted power trip. Totally unprofessional and I heard through the grapevine that this was actually the cause of the stampede: miscommunication and a cocky attitude.)
Still, despite all these, our sprits remained high and we were extremely grateful about not having to be crushed in between millions of bodies at the quadrants. It was no joke. The entire day was extremely cold and wet.
Most of the morning was spent just waiting around and killing time. The emcee that day has been the subject of criticism by many but honestly, I think he did a good job. I'm sure it wasn't easy for him. He was there since the wee hours of the morning in less than stellar conditions but his enthusiasm never wavered and he was able to maintain a light atmosphere for everyone with his cheerful and festive demeanor.
A lot of online bashers say that he turned a supposedly solemn event into an episode of "Showtime". So what? There was certainly much to celebrate and be joyful for. It wasn't like we weren't able to reflect during the actual mass (which I must say was beautiful with the choir and full orchestra.) Bottom line: I think he made the long wait slightly more bearable for the majority.
Things began to pick up when it was time for "Pit Señor!". Dancers were flew in from Cebu and it was just a light and happy time.
From then on, we spent most of the rest of the day in the rain, waiting for the arrival of Pope Francis.
I was not prepared for the surge of emotions I felt while being in his presence.
You know the feeling of how most of us cry during one on one confessions held during religious retreats? It sort of feels the same way...
Except he didn't even have to utter a single word.
His aura is so peaceful, gentle and forgiving.
I felt an overwhelming sense of release, peace and love wash over me. It was truly an unforgettable, spiritual experience that I'm sure will never happen again. It was worth every single sacrifice we had to make that day and more.
Spot Nikola :)
We love you Pope Francis!
Thank you for reminding us of the true meaning of being Catholic. Thank you for leading by example and for being an inspiration to all of us. Thank you for being the open-minded and accepting person that you are. Thank you for opening your heart and your church with welcoming arms. Thank you for accepting prodigal children like me and making us know that it's okay. Thank you for helping us find our way back and believe once again.