Religious piety in diplomatic life

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The Lenten Season is upon us side-by-side with the simmering campaign for national elections. Amidst the din of politics and incredible happenings in society, a dose of the spiritual appears to be in order.

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In the Sept. 14 2014 issue of The Philippine Star I read with reverential respect about the unflinching religious devotion of Bienvenido Tantoco, former Philippine ambassador to the Holy See (Vatican). In particular, the article of Rica Lopez-de Jesus focused on her lolo’s (Ambassador Tantoco) devotion to the painting of the image of the Divine Mercy located in Krakow, Poland. This rekindled memories of our own encounter with the other painting of the Divine Mercy situated in a church in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, one of the three Baltic States.

My wife Angelita and I are likewise devotees of the Divine Mercy and collectors of religious items. In 1979, we had the opportunity to make official and personal visits to Eastern and Central Europe, which then consisted of captive nations under communism. Communist rule had overshadowed the fact that certain Eastern European countries are remarkable showcases of Christian orthodoxy and iconography. In those trips, we visited Warsaw, Poland; Sofia, Bulgaria; Belgrade, Yugoslavia; Prague, Czechoslovakia and Budapest, Hungary. Our interest in icons was aroused during our sojourn in these places, and this interest gave way to an acquisitive bent when I was assigned as the first resident Philippine Ambassador to Hungary in 1989 and concurrent non-resident envoy to Czechoslovakia. We spent four years in Budapest and revisited the region twice thereafter.

Our wanderlust tinged with religious inclination had taken us to places of worship, including those in Poland, which I also covered briefly from Budapest. In Poland, we visited Cracow, where Saint Pope John Paul II served as archbishop, and Czestochowa, where the reputedly miraculous icon of the Black Madonna is enshrined in the monastery of Jasna Gora. We missed the altar depicting the Hour of Great Mercy, which is located in a convent near Cracow. This painting of Jesus Christ is the source of the 3 o’clock habit, the Hour of Great Mercy. (I had the opportunity to meet Pope John Paul II in Budapest when he visited Hungary in 1991.)

According to accounts, the apparition of Lord Jesus appeared to Blessed Sister Faustina Kowalska at the convent in 1937 and entrusted to her the creation of an image honoring His hour of death. This gave birth to the cult of the Divine Mercy, which as a huge following in the Philippines.

We learned later from a reliable person that there was another image of the Divine Mercy in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania. My attendance at the Asean-Russia dialogue in Moscow in June 1998 provided me and Angie with the chance to proceed to Lithuania and the other Baltic States—Estonia and Latvia—for private visits. From Moscow, we took a train to St. Petersburg to connect to Helsinki, Finland then a luxury ferry to Tallinn, Estonia, and proceeded by express bus to Riga, Latvia, and onward to Vilnius, Lithuania staying at each stop one or two days.

Our bus journey to Vilnius took us some seven hours with a heavy downpour awaiting us at the terminal at night. Fortunately, one of our co-passengers in the bus was a kind Lithuanian who could speak English and who had been to the Philippines in pursuit of his calling as a seaman. He volunteered to accompany us in a taxi to a modern downtown hotel, which we saw in our travel guidebook. Much to our chagrin, the hotel and other hotels as well were fully booked since there was an important meeting taking place in Vilnius. The hotel receptionist was kind enough to contact a Lithuanian lady who had a furnished apartment with American-style amenities, including a washing machine and dryer. The apartment was in a building in the pedestrian lane that has a formidable view of another part of the city. The rate was very much to our liking-only $50 per day.

We profusely thanked the Lithuanian seaman and gave him American chocolates for his children. In turn, he praised us as “brave souls” for venturing out to his country.

As a sports buff, I know that Lithuania won the bronze medal in basketball in two Olympic Games and was the 2004 basketball champion of Europe. But our five-day stay in Vilnius yielded another insight. Lithuania is predominantly Roman Catholic and has many churches of varying architecture and grandeur.

We found the image of the Divine Mercy inside the Church of the Holy Spirit, Dominikonu St., 8, Vilnius. The information sheet of the church claimed that it was the first image of the Divine Mercy and was painted by a Lithuanian artist, Eugeniusz Kazimirowski. The image made a pilgrimage from churches to churches before it finally found a niche in the Church of the Holy Spirit in 1987. Pope John Paul II prayed before the image during his visit to Vilnius on September 5, 1993. We bought postcards of the Divine Mercy and of the church where it is situated.

We had intended to proceed to Kievy, Ukraine from Vilnius but visa problem stood on the way. Ukraine would have been a fitting finale for our trip for it was the recognized fountainhead of iconography in Eastern Europe. We decided to fly back to Moscow for our return journey to Manila.

It was illuminating as well as spiritually enriching to go on a religious odyssey. Angie and I were delighted to know that on March 2 2016, during the celebration of the Jubilee of Mercy, a faithful representation of the original painting of the Divine Mercy, in Vilnius, was unveiled at the Sto. Niño de Paz Greenbelt Chapel in Makati City. The framed image is now enshrined at the center bridge of the chapel 18 years after our visit to Lithuania.

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