Faith and Spirituality

[The Wide Shot] I lost my wallet in Rome – and found something else

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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[The Wide Shot] I lost my wallet in Rome – and found something else
‘When I called Paring Bert for help, all I asked was for him to lend me euros. But he gave me all I needed to learn in Rome: human fraternity, the reason we met the Pope.’

Last week, I wrote about the moment I froze after meeting Pope Francis.

Today, let me tell you about the moment I froze again – this time, with cold sweat.

Three days after meeting the Pope, in the evening of Tuesday, May 14, I was taking pictures around Fontana di Trevi (Trevi Fountain), an 18th-century Baroque structure that is one of the most famous tourist spots in Rome. “Thank you, Lord,” I whispered, as I took a few deep breaths and marveled at the Eternal City.

Minutes later, I walked a number of steps away from the fountain and wanted to buy dinner. Then I felt my pocket. Mm-hmm. Oh no, I thought – not now, not here. “Wait, where is my wallet?”

I had the same thoughts as when I met the Pope: “What on earth just happened?”

I had been warned about this as early as 2014, the first time I visited Rome. “I used to work in Quiapo,” an overseas Filipino worker said, referring to a bustling Manila district where pickpockets abound. “I never lost my wallet to thieves. Until I worked in Rome.” The editor of a popular broadsheet, with whom I was traveling in Berlin before I flew to Rome that year, gave the same warning in a motherly way.

How could I forget?

I wanted to cry, I wanted to shout, but no, Paterno, calm down. I had to think on my feet. Immediately, I took out my cellphone, opened my online banking accounts, and blocked each of the three credit cards and two debit cards in my brown wallet. (Yes, I know, it was careless of me to put them all in one place! Lesson learned!) 

My wallet contained cash worth P15,000 (240 euros) – yes, painful – but nothing could be more devastating than a thief’s card-swiping galore. So when the cards had been blocked, whew, that was one huge tragedy out of the way.

Then, I returned to the fountain area and – with all the kapal ng mukha (or “thickness of face”) that I could muster – stood on the steps facing Fontana di Trevi. I said in a loud, declarative, and yes, desperate tone: “Did anyone see my wallet???” Many tourists stood up and checked if my wallet was there. “Not here,” they said with a look of sympathy – or maybe pity.

I know, nakakahiya (embarrassing) – but what can I do?

“Saint Anthony,” I called the patron saint of the lost, “pray for me!”

Architecture, Fountain, Water
TOURIST SPOT. This is one of the last photos taken by the author at Fontana di Trevi before losing his wallet on May 14, 2024. Photo by Paterno Esmaquel II/Rappler

Now, the next problem: I had 24 hours left before flying back to Manila. How would I return to my hotel? How would I eat? How would I get to the airport? How would I survive Europe without a single euro?

I decided to call a friend.

“Hello, Father, are you home?” I asked in Filipino. The man in the WhatsApp call answered, “Yes, why?”

“Father, I have an emergency,” I said. “I lost my wallet. Can I borrow money which I will then transfer back to you via online banking?”

“Where are you?” he asked. I said I was at Fontana di Trevi. He told me to come to his residence, which was a three-minute walk away. I said I would – after one final check of the fountain area. If I really couldn’t find my wallet, then I would need his help. 

It was a 55-second call on WhatsApp.

Four minutes later, he sent me a message – one of his simplest yet most touching words that night. It was most caringly said in Filipino: “Kumain ka na ba?” (Have you eaten?)

“I was supposed to,” I said, “when I found out my wallet was missing.”

Shortly after, Father called again. He said he would walk to the place where I was. “I’ll bring you to a Chinese restaurant,” he said.

In less than five minutes, he was standing in front of the Chiesa dei Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio (Church of Saints Vincent and Anastasius), a few steps away from Fontana di Trevi. That night, I didn’t simply see a bearded Jesuit. I saw Jesus to the rescue.

Meet Paring Bert

A poet and philosopher and scholar who is also a common man, the priest who helped me is Father Albert Alejo, SJ. Known in the Philippines as “Paring Bert,” he is a 65-year-old Jesuit with a wide range of advocacies – from fighting corruption to promoting peace in Mindanao to defending victims of Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. 

In February 2020, the Philippine government sued him and another priest who defended drug war victims, Father Flavie Villanueva, over an alleged plot to oust Duterte. The case was seen as a move to silence government critics. They were, as expected, acquitted of sedition in September 2023.

Paring Bert, who holds a doctorate in social anthropology from SOAS University of London, is now teaching at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. 

“How are you?” he asked. I responded with a hug, then told him how it all happened.

Paring Bert led the way to a ristorante Cinese where he ordered the best meal I had in Rome: fried rice with chicken bits, and stir-fried chicken with bamboo shoots – delicious in themselves but made more special by the situation.

I was a cashless man in a foreign land, and a priest came to feed me, listened to me, and shared other stories of loss – from stolen items to broken friendships, including his own – as if to tell this 37-year-old, “You are not alone.”

Dining Table, Furniture, Table
HEAVENLY MEAL. The author with Father Albert Alejo, SJ, at a Chinese restaurant near Fontana di Trevi in Rome, May 14, 2024. Photo by Paterno Esmaquel II/Rappler

Midway through the meal, I realized I was eating from the serving plate. “Father, have some,” I said. The priest answered, “No, this food is really for you.” Paring Bert, who used to host a TV segment on morning reflections, continued telling stories as I ate my Chinese meal. I insisted that he try the chicken – it was really good – so he got his chopsticks and took a few bites.

I gazed at his face and looked into his eyes. All I saw was mercy. 

At the end of the meal, he took out blue and orange bills from his pocket. “This is all the money I have,” he said, holding 120 euros or P7,500 that he was lending to me. “Thank you so much, Paring Bert,” I said – and I wanted to cry. 

When the waitress handed us the bill, she also gave us two fortune cookies, semicircular wafers with strips of paper inside. I got one of these and could not believe the coincidence. The message in my fortune cookie? “Do not think about what you are missing but what you have.” When Paring Bert took his own cookie, it said: “You can always take the initiative.”

“Are the heavens joking?” I said with a smile. Then I remembered a line that Jesuits love to repeat: “There are no accidents; only grace.”

Body Part, Finger, Hand
WHAT A COINCIDENCE. The fortune cookie after the author’s meal with Father Albert Alejo, SJ, contains a fitting message. Photo by Paterno Esmaquel II/Rappler

Minutes later, we walked back to his residence, and he went up to his room. He returned with a paper bag full of items that I can bring back home as pasalubong. (When I visited Rome a few months back, Paring Bert was also the one who gave me a second-hand Bible in Italian – because I was studying the language and said I wanted to buy one.)

What a kind man of the cloth who walked his talk.

When I called Paring Bert for help, all I asked was for him to lend me euros. But he gave me all that I needed to learn in Rome: human fraternity, the reason we met the Pope.

Learning by example

The second World Meeting on Human Fraternity, convened by Fondazione Fratelli Tutti, was the reason I accompanied our chief executive officer Maria Ressa to Rome last week. (Maria had flown back to Manila two days before I lost my wallet. I did not tell her about it until after the ordeal was over.)

In the two-day conference, Nobel Peace Prize laureates including Maria discussed ways by which nations can forge human fraternity – or closer brotherhood and sisterhood – at a time of conflict, poverty, and violence brought by new technology. 

They talked about human fraternity from the perspective of policy. What does it mean to “be human” as wars ravage Ukraine and Gaza? How can we safeguard humanity in the face of destructive artificial intelligence? Why do multilateral bodies like the United Nations matter now more than ever? 

The conference (and the name of the organizer) is inspired by Fratelli Tutti (Brothers All), a landmark document written by Pope Francis. This 92-page document, in fact, is one of the keys to understanding his 11-year-old papacy. Like the pontiff’s name, it is inspired by Saint Francis of Assisi – the patron saint of peace who, with the words fratelli tutti, “addressed his brothers and sisters and proposed to them a way of life marked by the flavor of the Gospel.”

Published on October 3, 2021, the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, Fratelli Tutti talks about the biggest problems of humanity: wars, disasters, the crisis of loneliness and fear besetting people “who feel abandoned by the system,” and “digital campaigns of hatred and destruction” as social media disguises individualism in “the appearance of sociability.”

But Fratelli Tutti also speaks of everyday life. One of my favorite portions is titled “recovering kindness.”

“Consumerist individualism has led to great injustice. Other persons come to be viewed simply as obstacles to our own serene existence; we end up treating them as annoyances and we become increasingly aggressive,” writes Francis. “Yet even then, we can choose to cultivate kindness. Those who do so become stars shining in the midst of darkness.”

“Kindness frees us from the cruelty that at times infects human relationships, from the anxiety that prevents us from thinking of others, from the frantic flurry of activity that forgets that others also have a right to be happy,” says the Pope.

The pontiff continues: “Often nowadays we find neither the time nor the energy to stop and be kind to others, to say ‘excuse me,’ ‘pardon me,’ ‘thank you.’ Yet every now and then, miraculously, a kind person appears and is willing to set everything else aside in order to show interest, to give the gift of a smile, to speak a word of encouragement, to listen amid general indifference.”

In Fratelli Tutti, the Pope states that if people make these acts of kindness, “we can create a healthy social atmosphere in which misunderstandings can be overcome and conflict forestalled.”

Days before Maria and I flew to Rome, I reviewed all that I could about Fratelli Tutti. I even listened twice to an hour-long lecture by Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle on YouTube. In Rome, I paid close attention to Nobel Peace Prize laureates at the Palazzo della Cancellaria – and later the Pope himself at the Palazzo Apostolico – who fleshed out human fraternity in today’s world.

But I learned Fratelli Tutti the most at Fontana di Trevi. 

I lost my wallet here but found the meaning of human fraternity: showing up for a person in need. – Rappler.com

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email pat.esmaquel@rappler.com