Faith and Spirituality

[The Wide Shot] A Rappler reporter meets Pope Francis for the first time

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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[The Wide Shot] A Rappler reporter meets Pope Francis for the first time

BLESSINGS. Rappler senior reporter Paterno Esmaquel II speaks to Pope Francis and seeks blessings for Rappler in a private audience on May 11, 2024.

Vatican Media

‘When he blessed the Rappler Communities app, it was the Pope blessing the work of our hands’

What on earth just happened?

I froze as I took my seat in this 16th-century reception hall on Saturday, May 11. Was it real? Was it a dream? No, I saw him. I touched him! I shook hands with him! For a good 12 seconds, I spoke to the man we call the Holy Father, the Supreme Pontiff, the Successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ on Earth.

I quietly broke into tears – and wiped my eyes while pretending I was just fixing my glasses.

I was seated on the fourth row, left side of Clementine Hall, a room adorned with Renaissance frescoes where the Pope receives dignitaries and other guests at the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace. I was accompanying our CEO at Rappler, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa, who was seated on the first row along with other Nobel laureates and VIPs.

It was a private audience with the Pope as part of the second World Meeting on Human Fraternity, a two-day conference convened by the Vatican to forge closer brotherhood and sisterhood among people. The meeting was headlined by Nobel Peace Prize laureates like Maria, and included other peace advocates and rights activists around the world.

Maria brought me along as Rappler’s senior reporter covering religion. At the conference, I wanted to see how people from different countries, faiths, and professions discuss the world’s greatest problems – hunger, inequality, and abuses of modern technology, among other things – from the perspective of the world’s greatest intangibles: faith, hope, and love.

Of course – “ngl” (“not gonna lie”), as Gen Zs would put it – I also wanted to see the Pope!

But I never seriously expected that I would be made to line up, along with 350 others in that private audience, to greet Pope Francis, shake his hands, and speak to him for a few seconds.

When I saw that people on the second row were already lining up, I immediately got my iPhone, opened its Notes feature, and typed a brief message. Since I have been studying Italian on and off for the past nine years (but most seriously the past year), I decided to write my message in Italian. I didn’t want to take too much of the Pope’s time if I still had my message translated.

And I had to write it because I didn’t want to stutter!

La Sua Santità, per favore, prega per me, la mia famiglia, i miei amici, e il nostro sito web si chiama Rappler,” my prepared message went. In English, it read: “Your Holiness, please, pray for me, my family,  my friends, and our website called Rappler.” (My Italian teacher told me it would have been better to say “di nome Rappler” instead of “si chiama Rappler,” although “si chiama Rappler” was okay.)

I played those lines in my head over and over again, so that I would not forget. Then the protocol officer asked us, fourth-row guests, to line up. I stood and kept my composure. I also opened my iPhone camera and used it as a mirror, as I would whenever doing video standuppers: Is my face oily? Is my hair well-combed? What about my collar and my tie?

But as our videographers know whenever we shoot vlogs, I can be very unpredictable, preparing a script then modifying it on the fly. When I was two persons away from the Pope, I edited my message, I didn’t know why. 

When it was my turn, I stood before the Pope, made a quick but reverent bow, and said a line that was not in my prepared “speech” (?!). “Santo Padre,” I said, “io prego per te. Ti amo!” (Holy Father, I pray for you. I love you!) Then I continued with the “per favore” part that I wrote beforehand. 

The Pope held my hand tightly, gave me a gentle look, and smiled as he listened. 

Pope blesses Rappler

Then, at the part when I asked him to pray for Rappler, I took out my cellphone. 

While in line, I had already prepared the phone to display the #faith chat room of the Rappler Communities app. This app contains 21 different chat rooms to cater to different fields of interest – environment and science, education, and justice and human rights, for example – where users can converse without fear of hate speech and devious algorithms.

I moderate the #faith chat room of Rappler Communities, which I envision to be a place where people of different religions can have meaningful exchanges despite their beliefs. (Join our growing community if you haven’t! Here’s the link to our vibrant #faith chat room. Feel free to explore other chat rooms, too!)

According to a 1984 document by the Vatican, there are four types of interreligious dialogue – and not everything is about theological debates or discussions. One type of interreligious dialogue is called “dialogue of life” – peaceful coexistence in ordinary settings. One other type is “dialogue of action” – an effort by different religions to take concerted action.

The #faith chat room, for me, is also an experiment in interreligious dialogue.

I wanted the Pope to bless our initiative.

So right at the point when I mentioned the name of Rappler (“…e il nostro sito web si chiama Rappler”), I showed my cellphone to the Pope. The #faith chat room of Rappler Communities was on my cellphone screen. I never expected what the Pope did next: He gestured to bless Rappler Communities with the sign of the cross.

I fell silent and prayed.

What you are reading now is the start of my weekly Sunday column called “The Wide Shot,” following the title of my private blog more than a decade ago. Here in “The Wide Shot,” I aim to talk about different matters of faith in relation to other aspects of public life: politics, human rights, and now this effort by Nobel laureates in Rome to stop war and forge peace. 

It’s “The Wide Shot” because I believe it’s the big picture that makes the “smallest” story matter.

In the case of my meeting with the Pope, it goes beyond a Rappler reporter meeting the head of the Catholic Church. When he blessed the Rappler Communities app, it was the Pope blessing the work of our hands. Sunday, May 12, is World Communications Sunday, which is said to be the Catholic feast day of journalists and communicators. What a timely blessing!

The Pope sees our work as holy – and so should we. 

I have the same thoughts about the second World Meeting on Human Fraternity, where I saw diplomats, activists, and journalists like Maria converging to discuss the world’s most pressing problems. How we use our professions – and in the case of the VIPs here, their immense power and influence – can mean life and death for people in the world’s warzones.

This weekend, it was the Vatican that brought all of us together – proof that faith can serve as one of the world’s greatest connectors. Yes, faith has also stoked many of the world’s cruelest divisions – and yes, many of the most hypocritical people we know are people who call themselves “religious.” 

But everything in the world is a mix of evil and good. And good always wins in the end.

In my case, the Pope who gave a Rappler reporter the kindest gaze of a “Lolo Kiko” is an enduring symbol of hope. –

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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