Blurred but holy encounter

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 January, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 January, 1995, 12:00am

THE Pope and the popemobile are gone. Atheist that I am, the cynical son of muddy Dutch dinosaurs, I miss the papal roadshow already.

There was a heady moment on Sunday, three hours after the conclusion of the biggest Catholic Mass of all time, when I found myself floundering in ebbing waves of the faithful on the corner of Manila's Roxas Boulevard and Quirino Street, about two kilometres from the park which had been the epicentre of the ecclesiastic explosion.

I don't know how the whole experience started. There was a murmur, way off in the distance, followed by some unseen disturbance and then a growing convulsion of movement and noise. The noise rose to cheers and then to shrieks.

Flashing lights and ululating sirens materialised in front of me, followed by a rushed impression of security men clinging to the open doors of unmarked sedans and then, glory be, the popemobile.

In between waving flags and placards, I got a glimpse of the Pope. At least, it was a blur of white with a pink face in the middle of it. He was leaning forward and waving, and wherever his gaze wandered, people dissolved in raptures.

Inevitably, those around me, some of whom had been waiting since dawn to get a glimpse of the Pope, got the thin end of the stick. He happened to be looking the other way, towards the other curb, when the popemobile went past, and we did not get the benefit of his ethereal stare, beatific smile or close up benediction.

Even so, one of my neighbours claimed 'I made eye contact'. 'So did I,' bragged another and this echoed from one rapturous believer to another. It was one of the main prizes of the four-day visit. People had travelled for weeks from the most far-flung provinces, not because they had a chance of meeting the Pope, but because they might have that immortal micro-second of 'eye contact' that will give them what they think is an enhanced path to Heaven and a more noble existence on Earth.

Eye contact was also possible on the television screens, although the Pope would have been blissfully unaware of it, and such unilateral dialogue did not count among the truly faithful.

Those who really believed neither hedged nor compromised the heavy burdens of their path to the Angels, and could do nothing less than wait for the Pope under a hot sun, endure the spontaneous rhythms of the heaving crowd, and ignore biological suffering that could only be relieved at the nearest toilet, which could have been anywhere from 10 to several hundred metres away somewhere within the crush.

Anything and everything the Pope did was under the microscope of live television for days.

Ultimately, I can't understand it. This frail old man interrupted my life, flummoxed me with religious buzz-words, frustrated me with strained monologues, provoked me with his unflinching dogma, and still I like him.

Why? Because in that brief micro-second I saw him, I knew without doubt that I had seen a holy man.