Filipineses


By just being a Filipino, finding the unexpected at every turn in Rome

‘DI ba ang Vatican eh ’yung Basilica lang? Saan kayo tumira?” My sister asked on Facetime, catching me still awake from jet lag. “True, Citta del Vaticano, with its 800 inhabitants all working for the Holy See, has no place for pilgrims,” I replied, and stuttered through details that would take me days to smoothen.

Eleanor and I landed in Eternal Rome, so like a dream that at the Prati B&B of Alessandra Bounaccorsi on Via degli Scipioni, the grinding of a dumpster bolted us out of bed. Later walking toward Citta del Vaticano nine minutes away, we had seemed afloat on streets perfumed by wisteria streaming from balconies like in a movie, through fashion boutiques, trattoria and garden shops. And suddenly, in a mercato, bunches of musot (bulaklak ng kalabasa), apparently used with mozzarella in a panini, transported me to my grandmother’s table.

With driving à la Manila, we had dodged zooming cars as we crossed wide boulevards and, soon, waving off hustlers who offer “no lineup for a fee” to Vatican Square, spotting in us a kababayan they could perhaps inveigle. More of the unexpected in our Roman dream began; shortly, we bumped into a huddle of nuns. “Filipino?” asked one, and all three lit up as we nodded, “Oo!!” But “pilgrims all aren’t we?” chirped the youngest. They belong to a convent of the Sacred Heart Order in Sicily.

Rome’s goldish sun ushered us finally into Vatican Square by then packed with hundreds of herded tourists and pilgrims. So awed with our necks craned to heights scaled to eternity as in those childhood estampitas, we fell into a hush. We had to whirl around to take it all in, the basilica with its balcony from where the Pope emerges at Christmas and Easter on television to greet us in his urbi et orbi, its dome and the colonnade, the marble figures of Christ, the apostles and saints we know by heart poised in the wind—where we stood, a Roman necropolis in Nero’s time, early Christians had been executed by him, Saint Peter among those crucified.

Inside the basilica, overwhelmed by the magnificence but especially a touching-distance to the Cathedra Petri, Saint Peter’s papal chair, behind the baldachin, I resisted blinking. “Filipino? Yes, a Holy Mass will begin in a few minutes,” the usher let us into a girded area facing the high altar, pulling us away from the thick flow of just-gawking crowds. “Dominus vobiscum” reverberated through the sung Mass concelebrated by about a dozen cardinals; Eleanor and I responded from memory, “Et cum espiritu tuo,” even singing, “Pater Noster” and “Agnus Dei,” transported to the dawn Masses in the dark brick churches of our youth.

Brought back to the square by a gushing stream after Holy Mass, we plunged unknowingly into an expectant wave, crying out for “Papa Francesco!” Soon, from a window high above the colonnade, he addressed us, straining body-to-body to catch him, thumb-size from the ground, but suffused with his discernible smile, his warmth, reliving in me how I felt on first seeing Pope John Paul II, long ago it seems, as his open carriage wheeled through Magsaysay Boulevard in Manila.

A daunting line to Musei Vaticani almost crumbled our resolve next day. But we persevered from a tail that snaked uphill along the wall behind the basilica to papal palaces once, now museums of relics from Greco-Roman civilizations, through halls of ecclesiastical and classical art—the utmost being Michelangelo’s stunning ceiling paintings of the Sistine Chapel so configured as the tour’s climax. Amid such magnitude, suddenly I understood what perfection in art means decades after Humanities courses at the University of Santo Tomas—why shouldn’t Art be the Church’s legacy?

Still a palpable sense of vulnerability, yet impregnability pervade not only in the museums’ telling of Church history but also in preserved structures, as in the massive Castel Sant’Angelo, first a mausoleum of pope-kings then a fort, that till now looms over the Tiber just outside Vatican walls. Saint Michael the Archangel’s fierce vigilance from a tower still pierces peering eyes—he, whom Catholics invoke as shield from ruinous enemies and who Josie Darang calls when fear overtakes her, like in a cab hurtling through Manila’s streets.

“Filipino kayo, Ate?” A salesgirl had caught us in a shop outside the walls, browsing for souvenirs that could extend our precious euros. She filled a basket with refrigerator magnets, and spangled her breast with nylon scarves for us to choose; the whole stretch had a Filipino vying to pull in a fellow Filipino, reminding me of Central Market’s turo-turo aisles—a poignant note to an uplifting day.

After two days of pasta, Eleanor and I began to crave rice served only in a Pakistani restaurant as per tourist guides. But sauntering along Via Giulio Cesare, we had brushed by a hole-in-the-wall named Sarap. “Filipino kayo?” we asked the obvious; not only did we get a serving of rice but the all-male restaurant of young Pinoys also paired it with sarciadong salmon. The answer to my sister’s question by then had taken a twist: Indeed, by just being Filipinos, we found unexpected parts of us at every turn in Citta del Vaticano and Rome outside of its walls.

Published in Peregrine Notes, Alegria Imperial, Business Mirror Philippines, April 19, 2014