Touched by a saint: A close encounter with Pope John Paul II

Zak Yuson

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Touched by a saint: A close encounter with Pope John Paul II
What’s it like to meet someone like a pope? Anna Marco recounts her meeting with Pope – now Saint – John Paul II back in 1995

MANILA, Philippines – When Pope Francis spends 5 days in the Philippines, many people will be happy enough if they can get a glimpse of the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. Some may even be among the lucky few who will get to meet the Pope in person. 

But what’s it like to meet someone like a pope? 

For Anna Marco, who got to meet Pope John Paul II in 1995, the encounter is beyond words. 

“You want to cry,” Anna, a real estate consultant, told Rappler of her first encounter with Pope John Paul II, now a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. 

In 1995, Anna, then a 25-year-old, was a delegate to an International Youth Forum held at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) just days before the historic 1995 World Youth Day. She was one of the few Filipino delegates chosen to represent the youth of Opus Dei, a Catholic organization founded in Spain in 1928 with communities all over the world.  

On January 13, a day before the official start of the World Youth Day, Pope John Paul II celebrated the International Youth Forum’s final mass in UST. It was there where all 233 delegates got to meet him up close. The Pope took time to personally greet all the delegates, despite his weak health and the heat. “His face was already red from the heat,” recalls Anna.

“We were told to say something to make him happy,” said Anna. “I told him, ‘Holy Father, I’m very happy that you’re healthy,’ and then he just laughed!”  

“He would look into your eyes and really listen,” recalled Anna of the meeting. When asked what he smelled like, Anna’s bemused reply: “he smelled like baby powder!”  

Second chance 

For Anna, meeting the Pope was a once in a lifetime event. But to her surprise, she got to see him again a few days later, this time in front of millions of people. 

She was selected by the head of the Youth Section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, Monsignor Renato Boccardo, to give a speech at the vigil mass on the last night of World Youth Day, in front of the Pope. Msgr Boccardo told Anna he noticed how helpful and friendly Anna had been to all the delegates, which is why he chose her. 

PERSONAL GREETING. Pope John Paul II greets all 233 delegates of the International Youth Forum ahead of the 1995 World Youth Day. Standing next to him is Monsignor Renato Boccardo, head of the Youth Section of the Vatican. Photo from the Vatican

It was a privilege she accepted with humility and a bit of anxiety, Anna recalls. But, she had no time to worry or even prepare extensively for her speech with all the ongoing activities of the World Youth Day. 

Msgr Boccardo and her spiritual director simply told her to just speak about how ‘Christ is a part of your everyday life.’

When the time came for the vigil mass on January 14, Anna and her co-delegates encountered an obstacle that almost prevented them from joining the momentous event. The Quirino Grandstand was packed to the rafters with people from all walks of life and the space reserved for the 233 delegates had already been occupied.

The Vatican’s organizers decided to do something unprecedented by letting the youth delegates sit on the main platform where the Pope would preside. But, because of the proximity to the Pope and the security threats against him, the organizers had a stern challenge for the delegates. “They asked us if we would be ready to take a bullet for the Pope,” said Anna. Running on adrenalin and energized by the massive crowd, the delegates didn’t pass up the chance to be near the pontiff. It turned out that Pope John Paul II appreciated the company on stage, which became a staple practice in future events, according to Anna. 

Christ-centered life

Anna’s speech that night talked of the challenges of living a Christ-centered life amid life’s distractions and routines.

“I realized that I couldn’t just let a day pass as an ordinary day. I had to learn to offer up all my activities to the Lord; and to struggle to find out and do His will for me at that moment,” she said in her speech.

She also spoke of her own Christian formation as a member of a large family and of her struggle to put Jesus in all her activities, be it at work or even in the ‘hopeless Manila traffic.’  

“I had to live an ordinary day, where I am in the heart of society, extraordinarily well. Knowing that God is everywhere and everything that he gave us the commandment, to love him with all our being. And that as he has sent his son, Jesus, he has sent me too.”

Watch the speech given by Anna Marco at the World Youth Day vigil mass (scroll to 11:47):


After delivering the speech, Pope John Paul II called Anna to come to him. Her spiritual director, seated just a few feet away whispered to her, “don’t cry, don’t cry.” She approached the Pope trying to find words to say him. 

As she moved to bend and kiss his ring, he hugged her close to his breast and whispered, “that was a very good speech, you even sound American.” Anna, practically speechless, said “no Holy Father, I’m a Filipina and a member of Opus Dei.” She then asked him, “Holy Father, please bless my family and friends.” To which he replied, “I pray for them now.” 

The whole exchange lasted a few minutes but has left Anna with deeply cherished memories. She has always made it a point to write the Pope a letter on his birthday and pray for him, even to this day. 

If given the chance to meet Pope Francis, Anna has so many questions she wants to ask him. “I want to know how we should feel about beggars? Are we not encouraging begging if we give alms?” 

She admits that, even as she is wiser, she is constantly challenged to put Christ at the center of her life. She says her World Youth Day experience and Pope Saint John Paul II’s life serve as constant reminders to live out the teachings of her faith – to listen to others and to live an ordinary day extraordinarily. –

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Join Rappler in a 100-day countdown to Pope Francis’ visit to the Philippines: a journey from the Vatican to Tacloban. Tweet us your thoughts using the hashtag #PopeFrancisPH!

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