CEBU CITY—The last time I saw anything like it was during the wake of St. John Paul II at St. Peter’s Basilica in April 2005. At least a million Poles, and so many more from various parts of the world, had come to Rome to pay their homage to the first Polish pope, who had died in office after surviving one assassination attempt and serving the papacy for 27 long and fruitful years.
The crowds literally filled every street and open space, and pushed their way, ever so devotedly, to the basilica where cardinals, bishops, priests and religious knelt around the departed Pope in meditation and prayer, while heads of state and other foreign dignitaries poured in, in stages, to pay their last respects.
One old woman spent nearly 20 hours pushing her way, and being pushed by the crowds, just to catch a glimpse of the catafalque; with tears of love in her eyes, she moved on as soon as she had taken a glimpse of her beloved dead.
She probably melted in the Square where vast multitudes were encamped in prayer, with huge banners saying “subito santo,” a cry for instant sainthood for the highly admired and well-loved Pope, reminiscent of the day when saints were said to be proclaimed in response to the popular acclaim of the multitudes, instead of going through the rigorous beatification and canonization process that has developed since.
I saw something like this in Cebu on Wednesday and Thursday.
Not same crowds, same intensity
There were not millions of Catholic faithful in Cebu to shout “santo subito” for Ricardo J. Cardinal Vidal, who died at 86 on October 18, and was buried at the Cebu cathedral grounds yesterday, after a solemn funeral mass presided over by Archbishop Jose Palma of Cebu, and concelebrated by the three Filipino cardinals—Cardinal Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Cardinal Archbishop Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato, and Cardinal-Archbishop emeritus Gaudencio Rosales of Manila, at least 46 bishops and archbishops (nearly half of the entire Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines), and hundreds of priests from various parts of the country.
But you could almost touch the intensity and depth of love and devotion which the endless lines of Cebuanos and other Filipino faithful showed for the gentle Prince of the Church who had served Cebu for 29 years.
The difference between what I witnessed in Rome in 2005 and what I saw in Cebu on Wednesday and Thursday lay in the size of the crowds, but not in the intensity of their love and devotion for the departed prince. On Wednesday afternoon, my wife and I had to spend three hours and a half on the road from the airport to Matt Jo’s M. J. Suites on Apitong Street, which normally took only an hour, after flying from Manila to Cebu for only over an hour. All roads led to the cathedral where the Cardinal’s remains lay in state, and where Cardinal Rosales presided over the last of the wake masses that evening.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who had earlier paid his final respects to the late Cardinal, did something completely unexpected for the Church and the Cebuanos by declaring Thursday a holiday in Cebu so that the Cebuanos could honor their beloved shepherd without any distraction. This allowed all of Cebu to fully accompany their shepherd in their prayers, even though the metropolitan cathedral did not have enough room to accommodate all churchgoers.
With this simple gesture, DU30 may have made amends with the Church with whom he had not always been in the best of terms. He had once cursed Pope Francis for creating so much traffic during his last visit to the Philippines, and he is known to have accused some priests and bishops of sharing his own admitted proclivities. All this proves that DU30 is fully capable of surprising his critics, if only he puts his mind to it.
Pope Francis sent his apostolic blessings to the late cardinal in a message read on his behalf by Monsignor Gabriel Viola, who represented the newly appointed Papal Nuncio to the Philippines, Archbishop Gabriele Caccia, who has yet to arrive in Manila from his last posting in Lebanon. The last nuncio, Archbishop Giuseppe Pinto, has been reassigned to Croatia at the end of his tour in the Philippines.
In his message, the Pope thanked the late cardinal for his long, persistent and celebrated labors for dialogue and peace.
What ‘my dear’ means
In his own message, Cardinal Tagle remembered the late cardinal as a sweet and loving pastor who loved to call everyone “my dear.” At a time when it has become possible to buy even people, Cardinal Vidal made it clear that everyone was “precious,” and could not be bought, Cardinal Tagle pointed out.
My own impression is that the cardinal called everyone “my dear” because he had learned not only to love his “enemies” (of which he had none), but above all to believe that one had no right to have any enemies except perhaps the devil and the damned.
If his capacity to love was legend, even more so was his ability to inspire love and fidelity in others. One of the real joys I had on this last visit to the cardinal was meeting again with an old friend who has decided to devote the rest of his creative life writing Church music from Cebu. This is Fr. Rudy Villanueva, whose hymns, religious plays and other compositions have become standard fare in many Catholic masses and celebrations.
Fr. Villanueva and I first met at the University of Santo Tomas, where I was literary editor of the university publication and used to publish his short stories under the pen name of Renato Madrid. He had since blossomed into a major English-language novelist before deciding to devote himself entirely to Church music.
Before coming to Cebu, I learned that he had not been feeling well. But as soon as I settled down inside the cathedral, former Cebu City mayor Mike Rama informed me that Fr. Rudy was in the cathedral with his choir.
With some effort, I went up the choir loft before the funeral mass started, and I was so happy to see him there, surrounded by his choir, who was waiting to sing their last tribute to the cardinal.
That, for me, was a real blessing.
A life-changing encounter
Cardinal Vidal loved to talk well of other people, and it was a joy to hear so many talk well of him. Bishop Dennis Villarojo, Cebu’s youngest auxiliary bishop, the reputed workhorse of the last International Eucharistic Congress, gave the homily “upon instruction of Archbishop Palma,” and gave the most incisive look into the cardinal’s character.
He recalled a “life-changing encounter” with the archbishop. On a visit to the seminary, he and his friends complained to the archbishop that the seminary food was seldom good nor enough. To this the archbishop said, young seminarians should eat but never get stuffed. It proved to be a useful lesson that cut across all aspects of human life, said the young bishop.
He recalled various incidents that helped to form him (and presumably other priests) into faithful servants of Christ. With absolute faith and confidence, the young bishop called his old mentor a “faithful servant,” a true “child of God.”