PERSONAL ESSAY: From Sri Lankan Elephants to Philippine Jesuits for Pope Francis

MANILA (MindaNews/17 January) — How does one explain the privilege of having been able to encounter this holy man, Francis, except to say, sincerely, it’s not explainable? No work, no achievement, no advocacy, no membership in any group or society was entitlement for this. It was sheer undeserved grace, as grace always is.

The event, I understand, was conceived long ago when Cardinal Chito Tagle suggested to Pope Francis that he might visit his Jesuit brothers in the Philippines. It was a suggestion that already bore fruit in Korea, when the Pope suddenly visited the Jesuit community of Sogang University. It was a suggestion that kept people guessing whether the Pope would visit AdMU (Ateneo de Manila University).

Fr. Joe Quilongquiolong had even spruced up his Loyola House of Studies to welcome him. As it turned out, 40 of us were invited. The personal invitation signed by Abp. Guissepe Pinto said, “His Holiness Pope Francis will receive Reverend Father Joel Tabora at the Apostolic Nunciature on Friday, 16 January 2015, at 6:30 pm.”

Invited, I went gratefully. We gathered in a special sala of the Nunciature. Suddenly the Pope was there, greeting each of us individually. When he got to the front of the group he said with a warm smile, “I was told that there were 40 Jesuits waiting here.” Fr. Provincial said, “In Sri Lanka, there were 40 elephants to welcome the Pope. Here, there were 40 Jesuits to welcome you.” Quick on the repartee, the Pope responded, “But in Sri Lanka the elephants were very well dressed.”

He said that he would use Spanish to talk to us.   If he used English, he said, he would not be able to say anything and we would not be able to understand anything. So, for about an hour, the intimate no-holds-barred conversation between the Jesuit Pope and his brothers in the Philippines took place. Between the spirited Spanish and the translation I will not even attempt to summarize what was said. What was communicated to me was joy, simplicity, honesty, encouragement to remain faithful to the transcendent in our calling, challenge to go to the peripheries, pride in the elevated dignity of the Filipino people, and, because of a shared vocation or a shared baptism, a special felt fraternity in shared mission. It was a grace undeserved.

From behind the Pope, a signal came that time was up. After all, after the Pope’s visit to Malacañan that day, his Cathedral Mass, and his encounter with families at the Mall of Asia, he hadn’t even had supper. There were photographs taken. I took his hand. I kissed his ring. We all together sang, “In omnibus amare, in omnibus servire Dominum” – “In all’ – with Francis among us – “to love and serve the Lord.”

(Fr. Joel Tabora, SJ is president of the Ateneo de Davao University. He is also Vice President of the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines (CEAP) and chair of its Advocacy Committee, and President of the CEAP in Region 11. MindaNews was granted permission to reprint this piece, first published in Fr. Tabora’s blog,