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Saturday, October 3, 2015

My Experience of a Lifetime

Last May 13, 2015, I had the experience of a lifetime. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever dream of coming close to a Pope! My closest encounter with any Pope was in 1995 during the World Youth Day in Manila. My dad carried me on his shoulders along the corner of Buendia and EDSA and I was able to catch a glimpse of Pope John Paul 2 in his Pope mobile for a good 3 seconds from a distance.

I flew to Rome for 3 days because I had been invited by the Pontifical Council of the Laity, one of the key arms of the Vatican, to speak in the Seminar for Sport 2015. The theme of the conference was "Coaching the Coach". I posted my speech in a previous entry in this blog. Here's the link to my testimonial.

It happened during the elimination round of the 3rd conference of the PBA. Thankfully, the Rain or Shine management and Coach Yeng were very understanding to allow me to miss some games and to take part in this rare invitation.

Anyhow, I had no idea that I was going to have the opportunity to meet Pope Francis.

What happened was actually a blessing in disguise. On the day I was scheduled to leave Manila for Rome, I decided (at the last moment) to change my flight to an earlier one, which was scheduled to arrive Rome at 7 am, an hour earlier than my previous flight. As soon as I landed in Rome, a friend of the organizer, Luciano (who you can see on my right) picked me up from the airport and told me to hurry up because we need to be in St. Peter's square by 830am for the Papal audience or else the gates will close. So I changed into my suit inside his tiny car, along the highway.

At this point, all I knew was that they had given us access to a special section where we could see the Pope closer than the thousands of other visitors of the weekly Papal audience. Our car went inside the walled Vatican city and we walked from the inside to get to the stage, which was guarded by the Swiss guards and other security members. We were led to the VIP section to the left of the stage where the Pope would be siting. We arrived just before 9am and after 5 mins, the gates closed, the band played and the Pope appeared and did his rounds through the thousands who came to the square. If I had not taken that earlier flight at the last minute, I would have not been allowed to enter! Whew!

I was so excited because we had reserved seats in the first row and we were just about 10 meters away from the Pope's chair. After he did his rounds, he walked up the stage and walked right in front of me maybe 3 meters away, waving and smiling pleasantly. Then he took his seat. I was thinking, this is unreal!!

What truly amazed me is his patience and sincerity in meeting and blessing the common people. He is 78 years old and still took time to get off his vehicle and touch the babies in the audience in the scorching summer heat.

After the 2-hour audience, he then began to make his rounds again until he came to our section, slowly shaking hands and talking to each single individual in our VIP section by the stage. As he kept getting closer to me, I was already getting nervous and rattled. I didn't know what I would say or do.

Finally after approaching like 50 people, it was my turn to meet him. I shook his hand and touched his ring and said, "Hello Holy Father, I am from the Philippines where you just visited. I am also an athlete" Honestly, I don't know why I had to say that haha! He never stopped smiling and to my amazement he said, "Please pray for me!" Then, he gave me a rosary.

I totally didn't expect this encounter, otherwise I would have prepared. Maybe I would have given him a gift, brought a rosary to be blessed or perhaps ask him to sign my jersey! Oh well...

That encounter really hit me. It was like meeting a living Saint. It was a different 'high' feeling. Deep inside I was thinking to myself, this person is so genuine and so humble, who am I to pray for him?

What an inspiring moment for me. Definitely one of the highlights of my life :) Up until today, I keep reflecting, what does God want of me? Why did he make this happen for me?

Let's all pray for our dearest Pope Francis and his mission. May his message of love, mercy and service be propagated to all ends of the world.


P.S. I kept my camera video rolling the entire time as you can see in the photos. But these photos were taken by Fotografia Felici, the official photographers of the Vatican. I just went online to select my photos and went to their store just outside the Vatican to receive the high resolution files. I paid 6 euros for each of them so I might as well post them here! Right? So pardon me for the bombarding of pics. hehe