She feels ‘blessed’ to have witnessed all four papal visits to the Philippines

Marga Zaragoza Tolentino (right) and sister  Loudette Banzon pose with a cutout image of Pope Francis

Marga Zaragoza Tolentino (right) and sister Loudette Banzon pose with a cutout image of Pope Francis

By Ludy Astraquillo Ongkeko, Ph.D.

In the current quest for peace and goodwill the world over, the role of Pope Francis has been pivotal. It gladdens many a heart to learn that the Philippine visit has been enshrined among Filipinos who went home to help welcome the pontiff nicknamed ‘Lolo Kiko.’

It might not seem at first insightful or particularly fresh because papal visits came prior to Pope Francis’ January visit. However, interior designer Marga Zaragoza Tolentino, one Southern Californian who has called America her home for the past two decades, returned to her ancestral home to respond to a phenomenon she could hardly believe would be hers to experience all over again.

“Papal visits to the Philippines have happened four times in my lifetime. I feel very blessed to have witnessed all of them,” said Marga. “These visits have given me so much joy, love, respect and greater understanding for our Holy Father, as well as renewed hope.”

Referring to Pope Paul VI, known as the first among the heads of the Catholic Church to do a pastoral visit to Manila, Marga described him as “very reserved and gentle, but firm in his teachings and beliefs.”

Marga recounted how that memorable personal Year 1970 event continues to be a standout.

“I was lucky to be chosen to join a group of boys and girls who were going to receive First Holy Communion from the pontiff. I was so thrilled by the idea that the Holiest Man was going to give me the body and blood for Christ for the very first time.
I distinctly remember practicing two consecutive ‘nights’ at the Rizal Park.

“On the actual day of the open air mass, girls finally got to wear our all-white Maria Clara first communion gowns accompanied by a long white tulle veil; boys, in their starched ‘barong tagalog.’”

Continuing her reminiscences on papal visits, Marga talked about Pope John Paul II, then head of the Vatican.

“My dad, Jose Maria Zaragoza, an architect, was very active in several church affiliations. I was very proud of him when he was given the task in 1981 by Cardinal Jaime Sin, Manila Archbishop, to design the structure where the visiting pope would celebrate mass.

Marga described the aforementioned mass backdrop.

“It was an oversized oil painting of Saint Lorenzo Ruiz, the first Philippine saint, and his companion martyrs. Pope John Paul officiated at the beatification of the homeland’s very own saint.”

On his second visit to the Philippines in January 1994, it was learned that Pope John Paul received the title JP Segundo from the youth. He returned to help celebrate the World Youth Day (WYD) with young ones from all over the world.

“That WYD celebration was markedly unforgettable while five million voices chanted: “JP 2! We love you!”

“Tell the World of His love,” joined the millions during that same occasion’s mass held at the cordoned-off rocky grounds of the Rizal Park.

Marga was in the company of her husband, Gerry Tolentino, M.D., and their eldest child as they listened to Pope John Paul who told the youth musicians at the San Carlos Seminary how he was interested in their music, their songs, their concerns, and their language. All the young ones, it was reported, felt ‘close’ to the pontiff who assured them of God’s love, mercy and compassion, encouraging everyone to follow Christ.

Fast forward to Marga’s January 2015 plans.

“I began to receive news about Pope Francis’s desire to visit the Philippines as early as mid-2014. Although I had purchased my airline tickets, I had no idea how I could see the pope. No one could assure me of a ticket to see Pope Francis, but that was not going to stop me. I was determined to see him on the streets, or through the eyes, ears and hearts of my friend priests.

“On January 9, 2015, at 12:53 A.M., I received a text message from Loudette, my sister.

“Yey! Got you a ticket to see the Pope!”

Her reply: “Do I have to pack a black dress? (This query was prompted by the required dress code when women sought an audience with the pope.) Loudette told me it was not necessary.

“I arrived in Manila two days prior to Pope Francis’ arrival; most of the streets from the airport, all the way to Vito Cruz had police officers lined up in both sides of the street. I had not seen security that tight at all. I was grateful for the police’s presence. It gave me comfort that the pope was in good hands.

“January 16 finally arrived. I did not carry much because I wanted to follow security rules given to those allowed to the Mall of Asia. I was in the company of Loudette, Jan B., her husband, their daughter, Kai, Yogi, my sister-in-law, and friends, Rosalind and Jeanette. Our ID had to be worn at all times because as we held our ticket, it had to match the ‘stamp’ on our arm.

“The lines were long, but moved quickly. Men were separated from the women’s queue. People complied, only scarce complaints surfaced. Numbers came from near and far, from various parts of the globe. Lining up, we made many friends. Everyone was asked to join the recitation of the Holy Rosary. Entertainment commenced.

“Pope Francis arrived on time. Large screens monitored his papal ride to the mall. As I saw him walk down the carpet, I could feel how special and holy he was.

“The pope smiled often. He would stop to pose for a photo, talk to people, bless their religious articles, kiss the children, hug the sick and the old. It was my first time to see a very approachable, casual, down-to-earth, simple, charismatic, humble, humorous, a people person, in the Holy Father.”

Marga said the immediate reaction from the crowd after Pope Francis’ departure was one of gratitude.

Pope Francis: ‘I could feel how special and holy he was’

Pope Francis: ‘I could feel how special and holy he was’

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