Pope Francis and My Brother

Pope Francis at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila (Photo by Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images)

Pope Francis at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila (Photo by Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images)

My husband and I spent our New Year on a long flight back to Manila, unscheduled, because my brother was critically ill.

Filipino expats with close relatives in the homeland know how that goes: You get a dreaded call in the middle of the night with dire news; you scramble to find reasonably priced tickets soon after (and often end up with extended flight hours because those are the only ones affordable at a moment’s notice); then every minute feels like hours because you are disconnected from news and your imagination runs wild and dark; you hope for the best yet can’t stop thinking of the worst.

I was practically a basket case when we landed in Manila late at night and, though my daughter reassured me that nothing had changed while we were in flight, I was in a panic over my brother’s condition, which was still very bad.

Manila’s weather was perfect – sun shining, just the right comfortable temperature during the day, no humidity, cool evenings – but because our hearts were shrouded in anxiety and sadness, somehow everything looked dull and gray. The “feast for the senses,” which is how I always describe our homeland, was more like a strict, tasteless diet. As we dodged traffic by driving through streets and alleyways in places teeming with people and poverty – places I’d never been to and probably never will see again – everything was depressing.

Our first week was somber, but it wasn’t entirely bleak. For one thing, we were all together – our extended family of constant travelers was finally in one location at the same time. And then there was the extensive embrace of friends and relations of various faiths and beliefs not just in Manila but from all over the world (thanks, social media) who were all rooting for my brother’s recovery, offering prayers and healing vibes, proving once again that there is truth to collective spiritual action when storming the heavens.

On our second week, things started to ease up. My brother’s vitals stabilized so we were able to have time to see a few friends. At the same time, Metro Manila was getting ready to welcome Pope Francis, which brings me to the second part of this narrative.

With his background, his pronouncements and the way our guide in Buenos Aires talked about the simple man that he is, Pope Francis is the first pope I’ve followed in the news with interest. Thus, I considered it a stroke of good coincidence that we were Manila at the same time that he was.

The excitement of his coming was palpable. There were posters everywhere welcoming the Santo Padre, even in places where he wasn’t even going. People in Manila were granted a five-day holiday as classes and work were suspended for the duration of the visit. And in this age of terrorism, the government didn’t take any chances that its revered visitor be a target, just as a previous pope was during a Manila visit more than 30 years ago.

Security was so tight that it bordered on paranoia, obsessiveness and a bit of the ridiculous. Consider:

  • During the dry run of the arrival and parade protocols, President PNoy who personally participated, ordered the security personnel to check the guests of Solaire Hotel because he noticed that some hotel rooms had a sniper’s view of the tarmac. Testing the route of the Pope’s convoy to the Papal Nunciature where Pope Francis would be staying, the President ordered the construction cranes along the way removed.

  • Some 70 percent of the police force in Camp Crame were mobilized to secure the Pope. (The camp was therefore vulnerable, but good thing no one knew about this.)

  • Media reported that the guards manning the papal route would be at their posts six hours ahead of schedule and would thus be wearing adult diapers. (Huh?)

  • Seventy minutes before the Pope would be on the move for a scheduled event, all cell phone services in the vicinity were suspended. This measure was deemed imperative to eliminate the possibility of a cell phone being used to trigger a bomb. So on the second day when Pope Francis’ itinerary brought him to Malacanang, the Manila Cathedral and later, the Mall of Asia, almost all cell phone services went dead for most of the day even in Quezon City, much to the consternation of our text-addicted countrymen.

Despite the requisite grumblings and the killjoy typhoon Amang that forced Pope Francis to cut short his Tacloban visit, the extensive security precautions paid off and Pope Francis was reportedly overwhelmed by the warm embrace and adulation of the Filipino people.

We weren’t among the millions who braved the crowds and the rain to catch a glimpse of the pontiff. Like the rest of our kababayans, we just watched the proceedings on TV and, at certain times of day, focused on getting around the road closures to go to the hospital, which was just a few blocks from where Pope Francis was billeted.

I’d like to think though that the ripples from His Holiness’ radiance reached my brother because it was during those days that he woke up from his stupor and acknowledged our presence.  

Gemma Nemenzo

Editor, Positively Filipino