Pope Francis gently laid his hand over the head of the stewardess. Trembling, she held out a picture of her family and he blessed that too. Then, he made the sign of the cross over the portrait of her son, who died two and a half years ago.

“That’s how I knew my son was finally at peace,” Rowena Clemente sobbed, unashamed, before a roomful of reporters and a firing line of cameras trained on the Philippine Airlines (PAL) pilots and crew of Shepherd One, the official Papal carrier during the Holy Father’s visit to the country.

A good many in the audience blinked back tears. Her already red-eyed fellow stewardesses, pilots and ground crew wept anew. But they were tears of bliss.

“We felt so happy, so blessed,” they echoed, as one by one, they testified on the podium.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, life-changing, the highlight of our lives. We cried and cried. He took my hand. I kissed his ring, his hand. He spoke with his eyes. It was a taste of heaven, a gift. We will never forget.”

Some suffered sleepless nights before he came. They rehearsed little speeches, charming lines which they failed to deliver, even the most articulate of their lot, as soon as the Pope stood before them in flesh and blood.

And yet, he’s too charismatic to be intimidating, so human and accommodating. “He smiles and acknowledges you all the time,” says stewardess Ma. Ana Alvarez, who served his drinks and gave him his towel during his flight.

A paradox, considering he’s one of the world’s most powerful men, every day in the prayers and intentions of his flock of over a billion Catholics.

But he was calm, even in the face of a real storm that cut short his Tacloban visit and that reassured everyone around him. “I’m scared of turbulence but with him in the plane, I felt no fear,” says stewardess Elsa Yuson.

She summoned enough courage to test her Spanish on him. “Como esta?” (How are you?) she asked the Pope. “Muy bien, muy bien (Very good, very good.),” he responded, clasping both her hands in his own as they talked.

Captain George Alvarez, co-Pilot of the Sheperd One flight from Manila to Tacloban, worried that he carried “too many rosaries” which people begged him to take for the Holy Father to bless.

Captain Roland Narciso, Chief Pilot of that flight, was struck dumb, though he felt so blessed he was able to kiss the Pope’s hand.

Pope Francis went out of his way to visit the cockpit and bless the crew although a good number of them ambushed him every time he went to the lavatory for selfies.

PAL President Jaime J. Bautista felt truly privileged, being in the presence of the Holy Father three times, accompanying him from Rome to Manila, then to Tacloban and back to Rome.

“It was a great honor for PAL. We were so happy to fly the Pope safely to Manila, Tacloban and Rome, to give the Pope and his entourage the service they deserve.”

And to the Holy Father, he gave many gifts – first of all, his own personalized Sheperd One –  an Airbus 340 model with his name engraved on it.

There’s a letter from PAL Chairman Lucio C. Tan (who was abroad at the time of the visit) welcoming him to the Philippines, an official picture of the Pope with his signature, a lifestyle magazine with Pope Francis on its cover, a medallion plus his identification card as a member of the aircraft owners and pilots association of the country.

The Prince of the Apostles gustatory delights caught the PAL staff by surprise.

All the dishes the chef put out for him “passed and was appreciated”, among them, PAL’s famous  Arroz Caldo – ginger-flavored rice and chicken porridge garnished with toasted garlic, spicy onion, salted eggs, roasted anchovies and native lime.

Nevertheless, the PAL staff thought serving him Chef Willy’s “Dinuguan” with buttered “puto” – pork cutlets stewed in lemon grass and ginger flavored blood sauce with steamed rice cakes was a high risk gamble.

“We’re scared it will be too exotic for Pope Francis,” they admitted.

Happily, the Pope proved them wrong. “It was a huge success. He was so down-to-earth, he can eat our ‘dinuguan’.” Of course, they had to explain to the Pope how the dish was prepared – with the help of the Vatican butler.

But of them all, ground handler, Marc Erik T. Lim felt he came away with a real treasure – trading a skull cap – “zucchetto” – with the Pontiff.

While Marc credited “standing in the right place at the right time” for his coup, he had diligently asked a priest friend for the best gift he can give the Holy Father on his visit.

The priest let him in on the little secret: he can order a “zucchetto” directly from the Papal supplier in Vatican city and exchange it for what the Pope is wearing. But there’s no guarantee the Pope will take it.

Still, Marc gambled. He ordered the skull cap a week before the Pope’s arrival. It was delivered three days later. From then on, he began “stalking” the Pontiff. On the big day itself, he took a position near the reception line with the “zucchetto” in his pocket.

Waiting till Pope Francis was near enough, Marc called out to him by his old name as prince of the Church in his native Argentina, Padre Jorge, and offered him the skull cap as a gift of the Filipino people.

Like a delighted boy, the Pontiff shed his cap and compared it with Marc’s gift for fit.

“Si, si (Yes, yes),” he exclaimed, surrendering his old “zucchetto” and giving Marc a couple of rosaries to boot.

The zucchetto cost Marc half his 13th month pay, that much, he admitted. Yet it’s a petty sum, considering he now owns a living relic and a priceless heirloom he can pass on to his family for countless generations.

Well, this was the feature story I wrote for Manila Bulletin today…

As for me…

I confess I was loathe to battle the 10 million strong crowds of my beloved Manila to see the Pope.

I have already beaten the odds with JUST 15,000 people in St. Peter’s Square, in the Papal Audience four months ago. Just.

I have seen the light of heaven on Papa Francisco’s face and touched him as I stood on the barrier and he rolled by inches from my face in his pope mobile. He had blessed my rosaries and my four-month backpacking trip. That was more than enough for me.

Personally? I think it’s much easier to see him in Vatican City, during his Wednesday audiences every week.

I did see him from afar last Sunday. I lived high enough to see Nagtahan Bridge from my glass window and I watched him from my bed as he passed by, standing on his Pope Mobile, with the thick throng hemming him in from all sides.

On hindsight, what struck me most was his impact on people. Not just the kids crying “Papa Francesco!” at the top of their voices till they were hoarse… The one thing I will never forget in my first encounter with him in Vatican City, beyond his touch, his smile, the joy of his presence, was the long parade of people in wheelchairs and their caregivers after he blessed them…

They were the old, the sick, the dying…some were too far gone… but their caregivers had tears streaming down their faces …hope, joy, catharsis… a mix of everything…

I don’t even have the heart to click the shutter of my camera… To do so felt so intrusive…

Such is the power of the Vicar of Christ on his flock.

I do pray to see him again, that I may receive his blessing once more.

Usually, my wishes come true. Especially if I wish hard on them.


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