BLESSED POPE JOHN PAUL II IN UST. Portrait depicts the late Pope’s 1995 visit to Asia’s only Pontifical University, and the fondness and affection of the Filipino people toward him. Illustration by PATRICK C. DE LOS REYES.FAR FROM the Vatican, the Philippine archipelago has long clamored for the Supreme Pontiff’s presence.

As Asia’s bastion of Catholicism, the Philippines has been blessed by three papal visits: one from the revered Pope Paul VI in 1970 and by the late Pope John Paul II in 1981 and 1995, respectively.

His most famous visit was during the World Youth Day in 1995, where many flocked to the UST Grandstand to get a glimpse, or perhaps a handshake or a hug, of Blessed Pope John Paul II.

With the beatification of the late Pontiff last May 1, UST officials recalled their experiences with the beloved Pope.

Public Affairs chief Giovanna Fontanilla, who had the chance to see the Pope in his 1995 visit to UST as part of the organizing committee, described the occasion as a “day of God’s blessing unfolding into a miracle.”

She recalled that while the congregation of over thousands of people were chanting “JPII, we love you,” suddenly she heard the Pope whisper back, “JPII loves you, too.”

“Like a song assuming a certain rhythm of a song, the crowd was saying ‘JPII, we love you’ and then suddenly I heard him say ‘JPII loves you, too.’ When I looked at him, he was standing,” she said.

For the many who had the chance to feel the love of the late Pope John Paul II, it was no surprise that he is now close to becoming a saint.

Known as the “saint-maker” who beatified 1,388 faithful and canonized more than 470 saints, the late Pontiff was beatified by his successor Pope Benedict XVI at St. Peter’s Square last May 1, before 1.5 million people.

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Thomasians who encountered the Blessed Pope recalled their experiences.

Fr. Senen Ecleo, O.P., regent of College of Commerce, recounted his close encounter with the late Pontiff during the Pope’s visit in Luneta in 1981, where he got to stand close to him on stage. Ecleo, who was among eight deacons selected to assist the Pope at the Luneta Park, said the presence of Pope John Paul II “was a gift.”

“He was young and robust. He was handsome and affable [and] quite athletic. There was an aura of holiness,” Ecleo said.

Ecleo recalled that when it was time to give gestures of peace, the Holy Father turned to him and gave him an abrazo, an embrace that one usually gets when they receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

“First, he turned to me and gave me an abrazo, but when he had said Pax Christi, I [just] forgot the answer. [But] it was pretty special. I was hugged by a blessed,” he said.

Meanwhile, for Sisters Celia and Noemi Vinoya, his deep love for God and the Blessed Mother makes him deserving to become a saint.

“I believe his deep love for God expressed in his genuine love and concern for people, regardless of age, race, status, religion makes him deserving to be recognized as a saint,” Sr. Noemi said. He brought people closer to God.”

Sr. Noemi, an alumna of the College of Science, met the late Pontiff in a private audience in Rome in 2004 while her elder sister, former Varsitarian reporter Sr. Celia, encountered the Pope during his two visits to the country, in 1973 when he celebrated a Mass in Redemptorist Church as Cardinal and in 1995.

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“His aura was that of serenity, just peace,” Sr. Celia said. “When you see his face, you just could not say anything, as if time was suspended. The things he said, the things he proclaimed, they’ll keep on lingering in your mind.”

Claudita Yaranon of the Institute of Religion had the chance to see the Pope three times, including in her pilgrimage to the Vatican during the Jubilee Year in 2000. She said that seeing the Pope personally evoked an overwhelming yet peaceful experience.

“[Seeing JPII] was the kind of experience where you feel you are nearest to God. And even though I didn’t talk to him, it is still such a holy experience. I felt that it was a graceful one,” she said.

Yaranon said Pope’s visits to the country were affirmations of God’s presence in the world.

“He is the person in the world who leads the entire flock of Christians. Doon makikita ang presence ng faith and the overwhelming desire of the Filipino people to treasure his faith in God,” she said.

Fontanilla said it was only “providential” that the beatification of JPII fell close to the date of foundation of UST, which she said were the two sources of her “unending grace of service to God.”

She said the Pope has been a big part in shaping her faith, being in the forefront of communication and education.

“He was a communicator and educator. He even conceptualized and organized World Youth Day. I have been his fan. With his beatification, I realized that I have to really be faithful to the mission of God,” she said.

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Former Arts and Letters Dean Belen Tangco said her meeting with the Pope at the Vatican six months after his 1995 visit to UST left an indelible mark in her heart.

“He gave me a hug and I said, ‘Your Holiness, I’m from Manila and from UST’ and he told me, ‘Please tell [UST] that I love them, and tell the [Filipinos] I love the Philippines,’” she said.

Assistant to the Rector for Student Affairs Evelyn Songco said that while she did not get the chance of touching the Supreme Pontiff, she saw him up close in 1995.

“His presence filled my heart with awesome joy and I can’t simply control my tears,” she said.

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