Early in January, it was heaven-sent to receive an invitation from Malacañang through presidential cousin Maria Vargas Montelibano to welcome Pope Francis on the palace grounds for his 9:15 am arrival on Friday, 16 January. It was clear that the invitation was to be part of the crowd and not the perfumed and the titled inside the reception hall. I certainly did not mind complying with the only specifications: come in your Sunday best or business attire, go through the Palace security as early as 6:15 am, wear your guest pins, and no umbrellas, please. We were also advised to wear layers of sunblock. And if you came after 8 am, you would have to walk the stretch of JP Laurel St.
It was a chosen crowd in that part of the lovely grounds with age-old trees, closest to the red carpet leading to the main door of the palace. Not a bad vantage point.
There were only a few hundreds of us on this side of the Palace, but a larger crowd of all the Palace staff and their families, all in white tops, were on the other end.
As we waited about three hours, we were amused by the Who's Who that walked by towards the reception hall. Those who were not interested in VIP-watching had Via Mare breakfast boxes (sorry, no bibingka) awaiting them in the Guesthouse, which to many of us evoked memories of Cory Aquino's presidency, as she held office there.
One could not complain of the wait as there was a large TV monitor showing the Pope's motorcade and there were familiar faces to renew ties with: Deedee Siytangco, Sandee Masigan, DTI Undersecretary Che Cristobal, Teresa and Cristina de los Reyes, DAR Secretary Gil de los Reyes' teenage daughters, Dinky Soliman, and Ging and Jojo Deles.
In the front row of the welcoming crowd facing the red carpet were a handful of children and wheelchair-bound individuals. No chairs were allowed there. My husband Elfren and I positioned ourselves right behind the platform of the TV technician where the view was great, if sometimes blocked by his legs. I practiced perching on the steps for a better view for photography, and he just kindly requested that I do not rock his stand.
The Pope was late because of the welcoming crowds en route to the Palace, and I could sense the disappointment of the Palace employees because he no longer went around the area where they were due to time restrictions.
What a special moment it was to see him walking (with President Noynoy) on the red carpet towards us. And because he stopped to greet toddlers presented to him, he lingered for a long while, allowing us a generous amount of time to savor this encounter.
As he got near us, three children in our front row rushed to hug him, almost by instinct, it seems. One of them was upset because she so wanted to ask the Pope to pray that China stop bullying the Philippines over territorial rights. Her dad reassured her that the Pope knew what was in her heart.
It was another hour before we could leave the premises and we were no longer allowed to stay in our original spots because this time the Pope would leave in his popemobile and another set of security protocol was in place. We were allowed to have photos on the Palace grounds and with the brass band behind us. We wanted to have one with the Vatican security, but they resented Elfren's politically incorrect query, "Are you Swiss guards?" They moved away and their body language spoke volumes.
Incidentally, our smartphones' camera lens were all covered by the usual Malacañang security stickers--and we never dared remove them in past occasions until the papal visit. And no one blamed us for this.
I never got to kiss the Pontiff's ring, but it was special enough to have seen him up close for many privileged minutes and to feel the warmth of his personality and holy presence.
May the euphoria over his visit translate into reality especially in the corridors of power.
Neni Sta. Romana-Cruz is chair of the National Book Development Board of the Philippines.
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