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Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

John Paul II’s funeral was considered the biggest assemblage of world leaders ever, though last April 27's twin canonizations were equally a block-buster. What made JPII tick---enough to draw in Sophia Loren, Carey Elwes and Fidel Castro’s sister?

    Pope John Paul II's funeral in Rome drew perhaps the biggest 
                 assemblage of world leaders ever on this planet. 
       Photo shows US delegation led by President George W. Bush 
                    paying their respects to John Paul II



On April 8, 2005, Pope John Paul II was buried with all the solemnity the Church could render the man who had led it for over 26 years---the first non-Italian in 446 years and the first-ever from the Slav lands to occupy Peter’s Throne. It was a remarkable and truly grand farewell that drew the likes of US President and Mrs. George W. Bush and UK Prime Minister and Mrs. Tony Blair, royalties in Europe such as Prince Charles (who had to postpone his wedding to Camilla Parker Bowles for day after to attend the Rome event), King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia of Spain, and many other leaders, including President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

It was not strange that John Paul managed to make his funeral the world event of the century, as some Western writers opined. For next to Pope Pius IX (called Pio Nono in the Church), who reigned the longest for 28 years, John Paul was at the Church's helm for over 26 years. But then, tradition says that St. Peter himself could have ruled over the infant Church for nearly 30 years; hence, this makes JPII the third-longest reigning Pope in history.

Moreover, JPII’s reign was a storied one that saw half of the European continent freed from the clutches of Marxist Communism in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s---with generous intervention from this spiritual and political combatant, largely by arousing a “revolution of conscience” in the Iron Curtain countries, beginning with his native Poland.

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I was privileged, along with RM Theater-Awardee Cecile Alvarez and then Press Secretary Cerge Remonde to be able to sit in the “balcony” just beneath the window of the papal apartments for JPII’s funeral. In between all the star-gazing, we would punctuate the ceremonies, along with tens of thousands in the vast Square up to the Tiber River, with cries of “John Paul II, we love you!” The Poles were crying, “Santo, Subito.” (“Immediate Sainthood”), which came nine years later---still super-fast by Vatican standards.

I had the good fortune to sit next to Sr. Nirmala, the immediate successor of beatified Mother Teresa, and she was most understanding of our being star-struck and of our chantings. In fact in a while, I conducted a whispered interview for my Inquirer column, where I queried Sr. Nirmala if it’s tough to fill the shoes of the legendary Yugoslav sister who founded her order. The tiny Indian sister replied, “I don’t try to fill her shoes. I just walk with her.”

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The day before the funeral our media group was escorted personally by then Philippine Ambassador to the Vatican Nida Vera through the backdoor of the Basilica, to pay our respects to JPII as he lay in resplendent crimson red cloak behind the giant Bernini canopy.  Thus we were able to avoid the frightful queues outside the Basilica that took some Pinoys from the US East Coast 16 hours to be able to get inside. JPII looked so at peace, despite his many weeks of agony as he grappled with complications of his Parkinsons disease and necessitated a tracheotomy at one point.

But what attracted me were his brown-red loafers that seemed to be out of sync with his resplendent burial attire. I could imagine him using that pair for his unparalleled journeys around the world---the most-travelled and most-photographed human being in the planet perhaps for all time.

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JPII spent all his energies evangelizing for nearly all those 26 years of his papacy---despite ill health already creeping in as early as five years before his death. His health was aggravated by  an assassination attempt on him on May 3, 1931 that could have made him bleed to death in five minutes, had the bullet hit a millimeter closer to the major abdomen artery. His miraculous escape at that time from death was ascribed to the Blessed Mother whose photo he always kept close to his heart. 

JPII"s debilitated health evidenced in a memorable photo of him in a multi-colored robe, quite stooped as he opened the bronze Holy Door of St. Peter’s last Dec. 24, 1999, to usher in the Great Jubilee Year celebrating the 2000th anniversary of Christ’s birth in the Second Millenium. But despite his health problem, the Pope ensured that the Great Jubilee of 2000 would be a huge success, and throughout that whole year the Vatican witnessed the assembly of all kinds of groups in Rome, e.g., the "Jubilee of Workers," "Jubilee of Scientists, "Jubilee of Migrants and Itinerants," "Jubilee of University Professors," "Jubilee of World of Sports," "Jubilee of Artists," "Jubilee of Armed Forces and Police," of the Elderly, the Disabled,"etc. He interacted with all the various groups as much as he could.  


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John Paul's tireless travels---preaching the gospel of Christian humanism everywhere and for Europe, an urgent return to the roots of its moral foundation in Christianity---gave rise to the comparison with the great journeys of the Apostle St. Paul nearly 2,000 years before.

Vatican records showed that aside from his 146 pastoral visits in Italy, as Bishop of Rome he visited 317 out of 322 Roman parishes.  His international apostolic journeys numbered 104, and in addition he celebrated 147 beatifications where he proclaimed 1,338 blesseds and 51 canonizations---for a total of 482 saints. His pontificate produced the most number of saints than all the popes down the centuries combined.

Among those he canonized were Edith Stein (Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Carmelites) and Fr. Maximilian Kolbe who both perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Poland; St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei who preached on the crucial role of the laity in evangelization, and Polish mystic Faustina Kowalska, founder of the devotion to the Divine Mercy.

Writer George Weigel, in his two-volume magnum opus on JPII, a work of 15 years, writes that in canonizing Sr. Faustina as the first saint of the Second Millenium, JPII wanted to draw the world’s attention to God’s divine mercy as man’s antidote to the horrible wars, schisms, and natural or man-made calamities of the second thousand years. He also decreed Divine Mercy Sunday to be observed yearly in the Octave of Easter Sunday.

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Very much a part of JPII’s journeys involved reaching out to his brethren in the various Orthodox churches, to whom he preached universal brotherhood under the same God. Weigel narrated that when the Pope landed at Athens Airport---prior to his visit to the Areopagus with its famed dedication many centuries back to the “Unknown God,” he kissed the soil and thus became the first Bishop of Rome to set foot in Greece since the schism of 1054 that formalized the breach between Rome and Constantinople. A local commentator then opined how, with that single symbolic act, “the ice of 12 centuries has cracked.”

JPII’s brain output was equally prodigious, including 14 encyclicals, 15 Apostolic Exhortations, 11 Apostolic Constitutions and 45 Apostolic Letters, plus five books, one of which, titled “Crossing the Threshold of Hope (October 1994), became an all-time international best-seller.

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John Paul II, poet, playwright, essayist, philosopher, was heard on just about every issue in the world---using the UN General Assembly; his initiated World Youth Days in various parts of the world; his papal audiences (his 1,160 General Audiences alone throughout his Papacy brought into contact with him an estimated 17.6 million pilgrims), and other more personal forums all over the world as platform. 

A big issue where he quarreled openly with President Bush was on the invasion of Iraq; the Pope feared it could drag the entire world into war with Islam. He proclaimed that he would fast for Iraq, but as biographer Weigel pointed out, he refused to condemn the Iraq invasion outright as immoral, as he did not want to trouble the conscience of Catholic soldiers and officers forced to fight on the allies' side.

There are those who feel that JPII did not use his mega-wide moral authority enough against the sex scandals allegedly involving some clerics of the Church that broke out over 10 years ago. Dubbed by media the “Long Lent 2002,” reports about those scandals caused such profound sorrow to the ailing Pope who valued chastity perhaps the most among the priestly virtues, and he spoke in strong terms of condemnation in various public forums. Ultimately it led to the resignation of some highly-placed Church officials in several countries and triggered enforcement of some badly-needed reforms.

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Having been present at Pope John Paul’s funeral in april 2005, I made it a point to be at his beatification on May 1, 2011; and though it was a struggle to even get inside St. Peter’s Square for the canonization of Saints John XXIII and John Paul II last Sunday, April 27, 2014, because of the super-tight security and the crowds, I made it to that block-buster event---finding tiny free space beneath one of the enormous columns in the Square.

As you readers realize, my hang-over from St. John Paul II is pretty bad.  The good feeling, though, is that the world will take a long while to forget this outstanding figure of the 20th and early 21st centuries.  Note how former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, for instance, eulogized JPII in death, as quoted by Weigel, as “the man who had likely had a greater impact on the 20th century than any other man,” and was “the singular embodiment of the trials, tragedies and triumphs of humanity in the second half of the 20th century.”

On the other hand, Kissinger’s longtime rival, former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had briefed his compatriot Pope on the Solidarity crisis of December 1980, explained the Saint’s fantastic global appeal by stressing that JPII “had connected his Petrine ministry to a spiritual hunger that was global in character.”

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Biographer Weigel narrates many episodes about John Paul II’s magical effect on people. For instance, his officials were discouraging him from pushing through with the World Youth Congress in Denver, USA, as that continent was pretty well known for its pronounced secular tendencies---he might play to an empty house. But to the amazement NOT OF JPII,  Denver broke records. Manila’s WYD in January 1995 attended by some five million people is considered THE record-breaker of all time and in all recorded world assemblies.

I recall that our family waited for JPII’s arrival and parade down his Popemobile at the Paranaque home of my sister-in-law, Ninez Cacho Olivares, in 1995.  After the Pope passed the jammed street Ninez, who’s not the very demonstrative (about religion) type, was heard to mutter, “It’s like seeing God Himself.”

Manila is the record holder, though I’m inclined to believe that last April 27th’s twin canonizations in Rome offered stiff competition. 

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What made JPII tick---the Super-star of his time?

Italian actress Sophia Loren was quoted by Weigel as telling the Vatican office investigating the possible beatification of the late JPII that “I jealously keep the memory of John Paul II in my heart.” Loren also said that she “went to the tomb of John Paul II in the Vatican to pay homage to him and to pray, in order to show my great admiration and devotion.”


Weigel also narrates the story of actor Cary Elwes, “who came to a new appreciation of the Catholic faith in which he had been reared, by getting ‘inside’ Karol Wojtyla, while playing him in a film.” Weigel also relates that one of Cuban President Fidel Castro’s sisters met JPII privately during the papal pilgrimage to Cuba in January 1998, and she told JPII that she had “dreamed about embracing the Pope.” Whereupon the Pope replied, “Well, why not now?” and he “drew the sister of the Cuban dictator into a hug, at which point she began sobbing like a child.”

What made him tick? It was a combination of everything he was---an incredible giant of a man for our contemporary times. 

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