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Better Late than Never

Fr. Carmelo O. Diola, SSL

Spaces of Hope

 

TOO bad my good friend, Inting Visarra, and I arrived three weeks later. We were at House no. 20 East at 72 St. between Madison and Fifth Avenues in Manhattan.

This was Pope Francis’s residence when he visited New York City last 24 and 25 September 2015. But then, even if we had arrived earlier, we would not have been able to make it to first base. Still, once in a while, we can imagine, can’t we?

Inting’s Talibon kababayan, Archbishop Bernie Auza, Permanent Observer of the Vatican to the UN, had been Pope Francis’s point man in the Big Apple. He had graciously invited us for supper along with some priests from New York and Utah.

This turned out to be a very pleasant and informative evening.

Inting had been my student at the theology seminary of Cebu where he succeeded at knowing what his vocation was. This former seminarian is now married to Dindin and they have four girls, ages 9-15. He had graciously provided me much-needed company and mobility support.

The house of the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations is a six story concrete building, 10,960-square-foot, of neo-Renaissance style, whose interior is mostly made of high-quality wood. It had been donated to the Archbishop of New York in 1975 by the heirs of the late Hugh J. Grant, who served as New York City mayor from 1889-1892. The building does not have an imposing exterior.

As the evening progressed, so did  rchbishop Bernie show a good grasp of many current issues that were of interest to his guests from New York City and Utah. His ready wit fueled much laughter.

 ***

The good prelate from Bohol had shown his mettle in the aftermath of the earthquake that demolished much of Haiti in 12 January 2010 and killed about 200,000 people. He was Papal Nuncio there.

He reminisced about a local painter in Haiti who had approached him on a beach and could tell that he was a priest although he was not in a clerical attire. He had since purchased some of the painter’s works, one of which hangs in his present residence.

He also showed us the room where Pope Francis had stayed for two nights and told us how “Lolo Kiko” had shown up thirty minutes early for a morning fellowship with his (Archbishop Bernie’s) family last 25 September. If my memory serves me right, Monsignor Bernie’s parents will soon be celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary and they still travel together!

This brief meeting with Abp. Bernie had been part of my effort to invite delegates to the 51st International Eucharistic Congress to make a side trip to Tacloban and Tagbilaran to “experience the joyful and resilient faith of Filipinos”.

This side trip had been part of the plans of the Solidarity and Communion Committee (SCC) of the 51st IEC. The SCC is tasked with ensuring the dignified participation of the poor during the IEC. This plan, however, took a back seat in the face of the many demands of the SCC, like identifying and preparing 500 street and other very poor children. This also means coordinating with parishes and groups who will actually reach out to and catechize the children.

Last September, the plan was revived due to a confluence of factors. SCC decided to do social marketing and actual legwork in the US to invite more delegates and include the said side trip. This is named the Break Bread campaign. The travel itinerary emerged on a daily basis. It was also my first hands-one experience in social marketing. Using Archbishop Palma’s unforgettable expression, I am still not a “resident” of social marketing but I am “moving there”.

We targeted Filipino-Americans who would then invite friends of other nationalities.

***

Seven states were visited, each with its own distinctive surprises. People offered hospitality. I was inspired by how our Christian faith enables Filipinos not only to cope with but also to become stronger in their struggles as immigrants. I had a deepened appreciation of the ever-present altars in Filipino homes. One family in NYC even attributes to their altar the miraculous sparing of their house from a blaze that gutted their neighbors’ places above them and immediately to their side.

In two separate occasions, two prominent priests from NY and from LA, after I told him of my mission, spontaneously said, “You Filipinos keep our parishes alive.” Another one even more boldly said, “If there is a group of people who deserve to be visited twice by Pope Francis, it is you,” after I told him the Pope would not be there for the 51st IEC.

I had entrusted this trip to the Virgin of Guadalupe. She saw to it that doors were opened, even unexpected ones. Riding in an Uber taxi in Washington DC on my way to Union Station, I got to know the driver, an African-American named Neil. When he found out I was Catholic, he opened up since he too was Catholic who daily reads the Bible. When he found out I was a priest, he started talking about holiness and the need to strive to be one.

“What is holiness for you?” I probed him. After some moments of reflective silence, he answered, “It is to think good and pure thoughts and to try to behave as much as possible like Jesus.” I must say, he is right on the dot.

There is now a call center for the Break Bread campaign with a toll free International number (+001-855-432-7445). There is still some window of opening to join the said campaign.

Better late than never.

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