TENS of thousands of Catholics from all over the world flocked at St. Peter’s Square to witness and rejoice in the beatification of Pope John Paul II last May 1, a showcase of the people’s love and appreciation for the Supreme Pontiff who led the Church for 26 years until his death in 2005. Tens of millions more did the witnessing and rejoicing through the electronic media if not vicariously, at least spiritually. And they weren’t all Catholics. They were people from other denominations and other religions who did not hide the affection and high regard they hold for the new beato.
To the Roman Catholic Church and beyond, the Blessed John Paul II was an example of sheer faith, and love amid strife and the many adversities of life. His successor, Benedict XVI, called him “an immense grace which embraced Rome and the whole world: a grace which was in some way the fruit of my beloved predecessor’s entire life, and especially of his witness in suffering.”
The miracle that qualified the late Pope for beatification was the healing of a similar suffering in Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, a nun who asked for his intercession when Parkinson’s disease was already getting in the way of her duties as a faithful.
The man of humble and tragic beginnings was born Karol Jozef Wojtyla in Wadowice, Poland in 1920. At a young age, he faced many loses with “death hovering over the family”—an infant daughter had died before his birth, his mother Emilia passed away a month before he turned nine years old, and his brother Edmund followed three years later. In the midst of the Nazi occupation in 1941, his father Karol had a heart attack and died, leaving the younger Karol completely orphaned.
“At twenty, I had already lost all the people I loved, and even those I might have loved,” the Pope would say in an interview nearly forty years later.
But the man turned to his faith and the Church, even when he was fully capable of taking on other paths given his intellectual talents and charm. His ordination as priest when he was 26 years old would be the start of his swift and surprising climb up the Church’s hierarchy, becoming one of the youngest cardinals in 1967.
The biggest surprise would come on October 16, 1978, when the Sacred College of Cardinals elected him as the 264th pontiff and the first non-Italian one in more than 400 years—a role that he reportedly accepted “before the cardinals with tears in his eyes.”
Speaking on the balcony overlooking the crowd that patiently waited, the reluctant new Pope said that he received the event “in the spirit of obedience to Our Lord and in the total confidence in his Mother, the most holy Madonna.”
From then on, he would be known as John Paul II and would spend the rest of his life with an even bigger family and more responsibilities. As head of one of the biggest sectors of faith in the world, the Supreme Pontiff embraced his newfound kin by traveling to be with them—making him “one of the most-travelled world leaders in history,” reaching more than a hundred countries and visiting the Philippines twice.
His pilgrimages, however, went beyond the Catholic circle. A peacemaker whose charm and sincerity seeped through negotiations, the Pope had touched the hearts and reestablished links with other religious groups like Judaism and Islam. He also met with many political leaders, appealing for peace and better relations.
He would be known by many names and advocacies, one of which is his love and encouragement for the youth. It was in 1985 when he initiated the first World Youth Day (WYD) and it has been held and anticipated since.
His second and last sojourn to the Philippines was for the 1995 World Youth Day in Manila, with its closing Mass at Luneta considered to be the largest Catholic gathering in history. During this visit, the Pope also visited again the University of Santo Tomas, which was hosting the International Youth Forum, the Catholic youth leaders’ forum of WYD. The Pope’s address before the mammoth crowd at the UST Grandstand put in proper perspective while UST enjoys special papal regard historically: “As a pontifical university, Santo Tomás has a special right to the Pope’s attention,” the Pope said. “In fact, this is the third visit of a Pope to the oldest university in Asia: Pope Paul VI came here in 1970; I came in 1981 and now God gives me the grace of being here again to meet the ‘university world’ of the Philippines.” Blessed John Paul added: “As a former university student and professor myself, I feel a special affinity with you. I wish to encourage you to live the University experience with dedication and commitment, in the pursuit of human and academic excellence, with a great sense of responsibility toward your families and society, toward your future and the future of your country.” Years later, when Philippine bishops and clergy visited him in Rome and reminded him about UST and Filipino Catholics, the Pope said he remembered those days “very well [because of] how warmly you received me during the World Youth Day.”
John Paul II dedicated himself to the service of God and the Church amid his long, hard struggle with Parkinson’s disease and the many controversies that he faced during his pontificate. But much like his fond remembrance of the University, John Paul II’s papacy is still regarded not for its shortfalls but its achievements.
Now, only six years after his passing, he has been beatified, which formally declares him among the elect in heaven and worthy of veneration. Even beyond his earthly life, the well-loved Pope is showing us that little miracles can lie in what we decide “to do with the time that is given us.”
On the other side of the spectrum is another—but different—kind of remembrance.
Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the only son and namesake of the late president Ferdinand Marcos, has revived the clamor to bury his father’s remains in the Libingan ng mga Bayani—the “hallowed place reserved for heroes,” including former presidents and government dignitaries, Filipino veterans, national artists, and military personnel who died in the line of duty.
The issue, which has been dragging on for decades, has dug up old wounds once again. President Benigno Aquino III, whose father was allegedly killed upon the older Marcos’ orders, may have opened his heart to co-existing with the Marcoses peacefully, but he was not ready to take on this huge decision and tossed it over to Vice President Jejomar Binay to prevent his bias from getting in the way.
The plea would bellow in many sectors, even in Congress, where a resolution was signed by more than 200 congressmen, “urging [Aquino] to allow the burial of Marcos at the Libingan.”
The survey outfit Social Weather Stations found that Filipinos have a “virtually exact split opinion” on the matter after their March 4-7 survey, while the StratPOLLS Inc. saw that 71.6 percent—or seven out of 10—of 250 residents in Metro Manila favor the controversial burial.
Marcos’ remains are in a refrigerated crypt in an “ill-maintained and dilapidated” mausoleum in Batac, Ilocos Norte. Marcos kin and supporters keep on citing how his mausoleum is unfit for a former president. But it was the megalomania of the Marcos family and supporters that set up the ghastly mausoleum in the first place. As far as the requirements of Christian charity and human respect are concerned, the former strongman had been accorded that when, after dying in Hawaii where he had fled during the Edsa revolution of 1986, his remains were allowed to be brought home. Many countries that have kicked out dictators haven’t allowed their remains to be brought home.
A Catholic country, the Philippines has rewritten the rules on ousted despots and presidents in the interest of charity. But the Marcos family and their minions still insist on burying him at the Libingan because his mausoleum is “dilapidated” and apparently cannot be properly maintained by the billions he had plundered. Apparently the snootiness of his family and followers cannot be backstopped by the billions they had pillaged: since they cannot put their money where their mouth is, they want the people to foot the bill for their superciliousness. Despite the mercy accorded the strongman, his family, and cohorts by the people who allowed them to come home in the first place, they still want to push the envelope; they’re merciless and irredeemable.
It’s an insult to the Edsa revolution and the tens of thousands of human rights abuses under Marcos, as well as those who have worked for the restoration and the nurturance of our democracy that the Marcoses and their sycophants could demand state burial for the ousted despot. It’s an insult to the many men and women—journalists, politicians, and civilians alike—whose rights and lives were put to disdain by the stronghold of the dictator, his thugs, and his kleptocrats.
That the Marcos kin and minions have had the gall to demand a state burial for the strongman—and the fact that the public at large seems willing to go along with them—should indicate that the battle for historical memory is slipping. More and more, Filipinos feel a little kinder toward Marcos not really because his successors haven’t been any better (although that’s part of the reason), but because Filipinos continue to be infected by short memory and shallow thinking: they can’t seem to understand that many of the ills affecting the nation now owes to martial law and Marcos’ scornful decision in 1972 to destroy the rules of the democratic game so as to perpetuate himself in power by corrupting the military and the body politic. The Filipino people should not disgrace themselves further: they should say No to burying Marcos at the Libingan and say Yes to charity with, above all, truth and justice.