MANILA, Philippines – The Filipino youth and the Filipino family have a special place in the heart of the late Pope John Paul II, who will be declared saint by Pope Francis in a double ceremony Sunday, April 27, in Rome.
Retired Archbishop Oscar Cruz, who was a personal friend of John Paul II, has fond memories with the most travelled pope in history – from the lunch they shared, the moments they prayed together, and the small talk they engaged in whenever the retired prelate was in Rome.
Always, the late pope would ask Cruz how the Filipino youth and family are living the faith and he would recall the extraordinary welcome he had during his two papal visits.
He also shared the one extravagance that John Paul indulged in – a big slice of cake oozing with chocolate filling for dessert.
About 9 years after his death, the late pope, along with John XXIII, will be canonized in one of the fastest sainthood processes in history.
To Cruz, it’s no surprise as he had always known – since John Paul’s death – that he would soon be declared among the champions of the Church and that the canonization “is but a formality.”
Man of prayer
A simple man of God, John Paul spent a lot of his time praying that, others who were invited to join him in meals often ended up hungrier than ever.
“He prayed a lot, he prayed and prayed. He would invite us to pray before lunch and after lunch. Those moments of prayer would last for half an hour and many guests, including I, would be so hungry by the time we had our meals,” Cruz said.
Whenever he was in Rome, Cruz said, the late pope would invite him for lunch and ask him to sit at his right side. The late pope had a hearing problem with his left ear, and Cruz said, this may have been the reason for his request.
Without fail, lunch always consisted of plain lettuce salad without fancy sauces. “There were condiments on the table, like vinegar, oil, or salt. It is up to you to spice up your lettuce. Of course, we had bread.”
Thinnest steak, chocolate cake
The main course was steak “but it is the thinnest one you can find in Rome,” Cruz said. So much so that there was an ongoing joke among the bishops – that they were not allowed to sneeze when having the main course. “The steak might fly away if you sneeze,” Cruz said.
John Paul loved good and lengthy conversations during meals, and guests were well advised to chew their food slowly. “Infallibly, he would always ask me about the Filipino youth and the Filipino family, and tell the others that he had memorable visits here in the Philippines.” The pontiff visited to the country twice, in February 1981 and in 1995, coinciding with the celebration of World Youth Day.
The main course, however, was not the main event. Actually, the most awaited part of the meal was a huge, 3-layered chocolate cake baked by an old Polish nun, so heavy it created a loud sound when finally laid on the table. “He would take a big slice and take his time consuming it. If that’s human weakness, then that’s his only extravagance,” Cruz said.
As always, the late pope would invite them again to pray in his private chapel. “By the time we’re finished praying with him, some of us were hungry again.”
Cruz said that when John Paul visited the country in 1995, he made sure that he got his chocolate cake for dessert. “When he had a meeting with the Asian bishops at the San Carlos seminary, I made sure he got his 3-layered chocolate cake.”
The retired prelate was also in Rome when an assassin attempted to assassinate John Paul in May 1981 in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican City. Bishops from all over the world were in Rome at the time for a meeting, and the Pope excused himself to greet the crowd in St Peter’s Square.
When word reached the bishops that John Paul was shot, “we were all silent and quiet for 10 minutes.” Then when they were told that he was going to survive, everybody started packing up to return to their respective quarters or to go home.
Just as they were preparing to leave, a small note was passed on to the bishops that they should stay put. “You were not the one shot. Continue with the meeting,” the note said.
A few years later, Cruz was also in Rome when the late pontiff slipped as he was getting out of the bath tub and broke his hip. “I thought I might be a jinx, why these things were happening to the Pope while I was in Rome,” Cruz jokingly said.
In his personal meetings with the late pontiff, Cruz observed that he had an invisible circle, as if a barrier put a distance between the Pope and anyone else. “This is my personal observation. Whenever I see him, or kiss his hand, I feel this circle around him that pushes one out,” Cruz said.
“It is as if nobody can enter that circle, which I presume, if I think about it, was a personal space between him and God,” Cruz said.
One time, Cruz mentioned this to the late Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin. “I told the Cardinal, how come you do not have that circle? And the cardinal replied: ‘You do not have it also!’”
Loved and beloved
When the beloved pontiff died in 2005, Cruz felt that it would only be a matter of time before he joined the catalogue of saints in heaven. His canonization on Sunday “is but a complementary of what I have felt and known since his death. I considered him a saint at the time of his death.”
His observations were validated whenever he went to Rome and paid tribute at the tomb of John Paul at St Peter’s Altar. “Other popes were also interred there. But you will see that at any given time, his tomb is always filled with flowers and candles.”
Cruz said that with his canonization, John Paul can now be venerated by Catholics but that he had been doing that way ahead of everyone. “I have this photo of him and I kiss his image whenever I pray,” Cruz said. – Rappler.com
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