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WE HAD ALREADY heard of Emma de Guzman, the former OFW from Canada who had already been stirring the world with messages purportedly coming from the Virgin Mary, and is now attracting pilgrims to an apparition site called the Mountain of Salvation in Batulao, Batangas.

We had watched June Keithley?s documentary given us by Marichu Maceda who had gone up the Mountain several times. Last Dec. 7, we joined friends Danny and Gigi Rodriguez, who had been trekking up that mountain since Emma started on her yearly visitations with Mama Mary every Sept. 8 and Dec. 8. Never ever having witnessed a miracle, we were anxious that this could be the first time.

Of course, as has been reported, Emma did not broadcast a message last Dec. 8. Amid heavy, relentless sobbing never before experienced in Emma?s encounters with the Virgin, she declined to reveal the contents of the new message she had received.

Before she became a worldwide phenomenon, Emma was a simple widow from Cabanatuan City who worked abroad in Singapore, then Canada, as a domestic helper to support her three children. Her best friend Sol Gaviola had organized a pilgrimage to the Fatima Shrine in Youngstown, New York, in 1991, and took her along.

While praying at the shrine, Emma felt differently, and several weeks later claimed to have started to see the Virgin. Slowly, people became drawn to her, and soon, the La Pieta Prayer group was formed by her supporters.

Emma began experiencing mystical manifestations like the appearance of glitter or escarchas on her face and body, stigmata, roses embedded on her chest, bleeding, levitation, fragrance and the ability to write in Aramaic and ancient Greek. The glitters were brought to scientists who would report they were of a substance neither industrial-metallic nor utilized in present times.

The writings were adjudged by linguists to be from an ancient Greek alphabet and contained passages from the Bible. Emma herself reports being aware of a power guiding her hand in holding the pen to write.

In 2002, she was told by the Virgin to return to her homeland to look for a Mountain of Salvation. On Dec. 7, 2004, on a hill in Batulao, Batangas, the Virgin appeared to her and gave her the message for the country. Essentially, the Virgin said she and Jesus love the Filipinos and the Philippines, and assigned the country the task of evangelizing the rest of Asia.

Pilgrims

Fr. Dennis Paez of the Don Bosco Retreat Center was among Emma?s first witnesses. News of the apparitions soon spread across the country, drawing more and more pilgrims.

We all had taken our time in arriving in Batulao, as Gigi said 3 p.m. was ample enough to get good seats. We got to the foot of the hill, however, to be informed that all seats had been taken by people who started arriving as early as 6 a.m. An unprecedented 5,000 people were to be in attendance this year.

Undeterred, the Rodriguez couple continued up the site and somehow managed to get us stamped an entry pass to the apparition area. We found Fr. Dennis Paez there. He has faithfully followed each apparition, serving as host, interpreter and apparent confidant of Emma on ecclesiastical matters.

There was continuous praying of the Rosary led by various people. Members of the La Pieta Prayer group could easily be identified by their signature T-shirts. There were ushers and members of the organizing committee with IDs around their necks. Everything was in place.

A Mass was officiated at 3 p.m. by Msgr. Ramon Arguelles, Bishop of Lipa, with five priests of varying nationalities. There was more praying of the rosary, then another Mass at 10 p.m. Intermittently, Emma would take her seat in front and join the prayers. Her followers Bill Pote, Andrea Limpo and Alabang coordinator Brenda Padilla kept her company.

All the activities could be viewed on a giant video screen and broadcast by loudspeakers to the thousands who couldn?t be accommodated on the apparition site. The road up the hill was lit by bulbs powered by generators.

Eating was not allowed at the site. Souvenir DVDs of the Keithley report and La Pieta T-shirts were on sale. Tricycles and jeepneys at P15 per trip were available to ferry people to their vehicles at the bottom on the hill.

Problems

The years had taught Emma?s supporters how to deal with problems of transportation and climbing the hill. An ambulance was close by for any emergency. Portalets were also set up. We saw a police contingent keeping track of potential disturbance in the area.

Residents from Ayala Alabang active in the Parish of St. James came to show support. Among them were Rica Limcaoco, Chita Araw, Cynch Estorninos, Jolly Chatdumal, Triccie Sison and Sally Plotteck, who was also an usher.

Gretchen Cojuangco was there. So were TV hosts Daphne Oseña Paez with husband Patrick Paez, the brother of Fr. Paez, who were seated beside us on a rock. We bumped into Joji Dingcong at the restroom area; he said he was with Dr. Vicki Belo.

All these celebrities were quiet and subdued, careful not to bring attention to themselves.

At past midnight, amid the praying of the rosary, one got the feeling the time for the apparition was at hand. We were less than 10 meters from where Emma sat, and as she bent in prayer, we saw glitters begin to form on her face. The glitters and the prayers stayed for around 15 minutes, during which people began to see things.

Our travel agent friend, Arlina Onglao, who brings pilgrims to the Holy Land and Marian Shrines, says she saw colorful lights crisscrossing the area. They couldn?t have come from the flashing of cameras, she insisted. Similar sightings of lights have been reported previously.

A girl beside us tugged at our shirt, pointing to the moon and stars shining brightly above the apparition area where water flowed from a tree. Everywhere else, it was cloudy.

Skeptical

People see what they like to see, we are told. Some see angels. Others may even see the appearance of a white lady. Golly Mirasol, also from Ayala Alabang, confesses she had attended a healing session of Emma in Alabang but was skeptical. But after witnessing the appearance of glitters, she said: ?I am now a believer.?

We met Nely Tinsay, who came to the Mountain of Salvation with her friend Sita Manjares. Both are from Guam, and Nely related she had been to the apparition site before. There were fewer people at the time, and as she hugged Emma, some of the glitters were left on her face.

Returning to Guam, Nely went to see her eye doctor for an appointment to check out the glaucoma she has had for 25 years. The doctor told her she had been completely cured, even as everyone knows glaucoma is incurable.

Gigi Rodriguez, however, believes the miracle is not in the glitters but in the feeling of a warm presence, like there was someone hugging you and giving you comfort.

There must be many more personal stories of conversion, but there is in Rica Limcaoco?s reading of Emma?s Dec. 8 sobbing something to ponder about. She said: ?Perhaps this happened because we need to do some reflecting and soul-searching. There is the danger of getting caught up in the glitters, the moon and the stars; by becoming too attached to externals, we [may] forget the message is that we should transform ourselves as a nation.?

There are also many questions left unanswered. Are we on the verge of turning Emma?s mystical gifts into plain merchandise?

Have we then been given the opportunity to change the world, but have opted to throw it away? Are we truly the chosen people, loved by the Virgin Mary and her son Jesus? And do we know how to return this love?