From the streets to the Palace, Filipinos cried tears of joy, thanksgiving and supplication. They cried tears of faith—the tears of a burdened soul, like a child before his father who has come to visit.
I never thought I’d see the day at Malacañang Palace—usually a gathering place of the powerful and those coveting power—when guests would be deep in prayer and even choked with emotion, when the trappings of power and social stature took a back seat to a manifestation of faith.
That was the atmosphere last Friday morning, during Pope Francis’ general audience with top government officials led by President Aquino and the diplomatic corps.
Guests, numbering about 450, had been requested to be at the Palace at 7 a.m.; the gates would be closed by 8:30 a.m.
For many, that meant hitting the road as early as 5:30 a.m. For us, who left the Inquirer office shortly before 7, that spelled panic, because the regular routes and even the published alternative routes were closed. They had been filled with waiting crowds as early as 5 a.m.
When we reached the Palace shortly before the gates were closed, we felt relief that, finally, we could settle down with the rest of the guests who were being served breakfast.
Shortly after, the guests were asked to go up the Ceremonial Hall, where they could await the arrival of the President and the Pontiff, while the Cabinet members were requested to proceed to the Palace grounds where they could join in welcoming Pope Francis.
The Ceremonial Hall was radiant as usual, but decorated simply, this time with foliage instead of colorful blooms. The stairwell leading to it didn’t even have the floral festoon reserved for state dinners. The long center table—now the visual icon of Malacañang—had arranged rows of succulents and cacti, in clear understated elegance.
Giant video screens were propped on two sides, so that the seated guests could watch the welcome ceremonies on the Palace grounds.
When Pope Francis finally arrived and was welcomed by Mr. Aquino, the sedate gathering broke into applause, and waited in anticipation for the Pontiff’s entrance.
After what seemed like drawn-out minutes, the curtains at the hall finally parted and in strode the President and the Pontiff. To us, that was a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
Pope Francis spoke of the need to return to authentic human values, the virtues of honesty and integrity, and uplifting the poor.
Their remarks over, Mr. Aquino led the Pontiff to the wheelchair-bound elderly, most of them with serious ailments.
Among them was Mrs. Passy Teopaco, sister of the late President Cory Aquino.
Then the Pontiff walked up the podium again and gave his blessing to the gathering. This was a most emotional moment. One saw, in the usually reserved crowd, people raising their rosaries to be blessed, others with heads bowed, lips moving in prayer, and still others tearing up.
After the Pontiff and the President had left the room, a tearful Kris Aquino approached her ailing aunt to hug her and her cousin Rina, whom she’s always been close to.
Kris told us how thankful she was for the papal blessing, especially moments earlier when the family had a private meeting with Pope Francis. She said she showed him the rosary he had blessed in April 2013, when she and son Josh attended a general audience at the Vatican. And the Pontiff remembered it.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima told us what happened at the welcome ceremonies at Villamor, after she genuflected and kissed Pope Francis’ ring.
“Please pray for the victims of injustice, Your Holiness,” she said. And he replied, “I will.”
De Lima cherished the blessing. “For the first time in a long while, I slept soundly that night,” she said.
That’s the “Pope Francis Effect.”