; CFC Middle East: In the Beloved's Embrace

Thursday, August 29

In the Beloved's Embrace

“What is your reason for going to Rio next year?” - This was the question asked by my interviewer at the pilgrim screening for World Youth Day almost a year ago.

I had thought about it before hand. I had planned to come up with some show stopping poetic answer that was meant to blow the socks off my interviewer. Then, I stopped thinking that nonsense and looked deep within.

After hearing the stories of past WYD Pilgrims, I realized that the true reason why I want to go was the simple experience of attending adoration and Mass celebrated by the Holy Father. Something which was more special for me because it would be Pope Francis’ first ever World Youth Day. And let’s face it, who doesn’t love this man?

So I answered. The months flew. Before I knew it, I was in Brazil.

Brazil. It was a struggle every step of the way. It was truly a pilgrimage. Not to say that they were all bad days. But, the struggle was there. I was grateful for it. I was reminded every day that the things that you want in life will not be easy to achieve. Not even close.

Let me back track a little bit. We were a huge delegation from our parish. We were organized into mini-groups for efficiency and I was ‘blessed’ enough to be assigned as a group leader. (The lessons I learned from the entire experience would probably be a blog in itself) So, when a week before we left for São Paulo, I was asked to send my passport copy and a passport size photo to the parish organizer and thought nothing of it.

Fast forward to Rio.

It was July 24. We were about to head to the second day of morning Catechism with a Bishop when I was asked by our organizer to go with him to the International Sector office of WYD in the city. Needless to say, I was a little disappointed because I wanted to attend the catechism after experiencing a beautiful session the day before. But, I obeyed.

We left the school where we were staying at and went. We arrived at the office and I gave my credentials. And I was given a pretty looking ID. 

My answered prayer.  I had no idea what it was for. I asked.  Then, they explained.  My pretty ID was my one night only pass. To go on stage.  Not to do anything. But, just to experience.

It was an invitation to experience the adoration with the Pope up close and personal.
Needless to say. My heart stopped.

That laminated card became the most important thing on my body, even more than my passport. No way was I going to let it out of my sight. I headed back to my group to travel to Copacobana Beach for the Opening Mass.

I am not the type to really share things like this to people. I wasn’t planning on it. But when I went back, my elder sister, who knew where I was going, took me aside and asked for details. Now, I am not really one to cry. And I thought that I could hold myself together. Turns out I was wrong. My body wracked with convulsions as the tears streamed down my face. Sobs that I could not hold in escaped as my elder sister embraced me for dear life. My heart literally wanted to explode out of sheer joy as my soul sang His praises inside.

After my unexpected emotional catharsis, we returned to my group with my head bowed to hide my face from my friends. I had not planned on sharing and the rest of my group was concerned about my crying. They had thought that I was releasing the stress of the past couple of days. Unable to speak, my elder sister asked my permission to share the good news to them on my behalf that they too can share in my joy. In short, the waterworks started all over again.

I asked my friends to keep it within us. But, I suppose good news travels fast. Random pilgrims from other groups would come up to me saying that they heard rumors that I would be on stage. I just deflected their comments and changed the topic instead.

The day of the vigil and adoration was the day of the 9KM walk. In case you haven’t heard, it had rained every day that week in Rio. In the span of a couple of days, the rain had destroyed the original venue for the Campus Fidei and it was moved to Copacobana Beach instead. And so the walk began.

From the time I woke up that morning, I was beside myself with excitement. No other thought crossed my mind other than what would be happening later that night. I started my walk praying the Rosary with another delegate, a God-send to me. The entire walk I would have moments when I would be lost in my thoughts amongst the chaos of the walk, partly because it was just so tiring. I was reaching my physical limit and my feet were about to give way.

But, I was among friends. It was another realization that nothing in this life would be unbearable if you were in the company of God-given friends. I had thought that I would want to try the walk in solitary mode.. but truly, no man is an island. I was grateful for their support and their presence and knew that our shared experiences cemented the relationships that we were building with one another.

Due to the change of venue, we had not planned on sleeping at the beach and had thought of going home after the adoration. When we arrived, we had not expected the millions of people who invaded the beach.

Don’t even ask how we survived. Miracles are not meant to be questioned but accepted and believed in.
Our over-confidence proved how much of WYD beginners we were. We should have been more prepared than the garbage bags we brought to lay on the sand for us to sit on. There was no patch of sand left when we arrived. People had camped the night before and marked their spots with flags and sand walls. Exhausted and hungry, we found a spot on the road beside the barricade and sat. This in the end became the perfect venue because we would have a close up view of the Popemobile as he passed.

Then, I had to leave to head to the stage. My elder sister and three other friends were to come with me to help me get through the insane throng of people cramped up along the 4KM stretch of beach. Little did I know of how much more we were to go through. What should have taken a maximum of 10 minutes to walk took almost 45. We faced really tall people, bottlenecks and losing each other in the crowd. There were moments when we couldn’t even move because of the sheer amount of people coming from all sides. Not to mention the thousands that was also setting up their spots. One of my friends even shed blood as he was scratched by something sharp somewhere along the way. Being the shortest in the group, I was also thankful to God for those friends who protected me from being trampled on. I kid you not, it was a serious fear for me at the the time when I could only look up and see the sky because of the bodies that surrounded me.

We finally reached the barrier. Guarded heavily by WYD security, WYD volunteers, the police and the army (I am not kidding). There was not only a physical barrier we had to cross by a lingual one as well. We tried looking for someone who could speak English and help me get through.  When we did find someone, they would not let me in saying that I had to go back the way I came and find an opening to cross the barricade because the entrance was on the other side of the road. But no way could we go back all that again. Not to mention that the Pope was due to arrive in a couple of hours so security was even tighter and they were closing the barricades. We tried asking different volunteers to just let me over the barricade. I showed my pretty little ID to no avail. The other pilgrims around us were starting to get annoyed at the chaos we were creating. I have a feeling that they were resenting how they probably camped there the night before and have been holding that position for hours to just get a glance of the Pope. And here comes these short Filipino people causing all kinds of mayhem speaking in incomprehensible English. 

While all of this was going on, I couldn’t speak. I would only show my ID when asked (numerous times I might add) but I felt helpless. Guilt overcame me when I thought about those friends who endured all that hardship on my behalf. The overpowering exhaustion from the walk and the previous nights of minimal sleep were beginning to weigh on my body. I kept praying in my head, asking for forgiveness at having to put others through this. I didn’t even want them to come with me because I knew they were tired but they wouldn’t let me go alone.

Finally, I submitted.

God, I know that this was Your gift to me. Thank You for this opportunity. I know You can see the depths of my heart and know that I am overcome with gratitude. I also now see that if I want to be with You, it truly is not going to be easy. It is going to be a struggle every step of the way. You have given me this chance. And now I want to fight for it.

But, if in You all-knowing Sight, You deem me as not worthy, I humbly accept.  I have no right to force myself into Your Presence, even though You love me. I can feel the weight of my guilt, my doubt.. my sin to the depths of my soul. Cast me not away from Your Presence, O Lord. But, if it is Your Will that I am to go back and experience You from that distance, it doesn’t matter because there is no physical distance that exists when it comes to Your Love.

Please accept this sacrifice and deem me worthy to just adore You. I have realized how much I want to be with You this day, and all the days of my life. But I understand now, this is only possible with Your grace. Have mercy on us, dear Lord.

After my prayer, my heart felt at peace. I told my elder sister that I was ready to turn back; that this mere opportunity was enough for me; that the invitation in itself is already a gift. But, I was too late. I should have gone sooner.

Here was when I realize that ‘stubbornness’ is also a gift. (Well, probably not stubbornness but rather determination, I suppose.) She told me that we were the first time anything like this has happened for the Vicariate. We were going to fight for this. She turned and started asking for help again. One of my other friends who picked up the local language was also speaking to some Brazilians beside us and was explaining our situation. In the end, even the people beside us started calling for the volunteers.

Finally, the heavens opened.

A couple of volunteers came by to investigate what we were going on about. Explanations were given. My ID was taken out again. I was starting to tire of showing the ID by this time around. They looked at me and told me to turn around. Misunderstanding, my heart sank, thinking that we really had to turn back. Then, they explained. They wanted me to turn around so that they can help me jump the barricade while the others hoisted me up.

Before I knew it, I was up and over the barrier. I shot a thankful look to my friends and was dragged away towards the gate as cheers exploded around us. My mind void of all other thought but disbelief, I held onto the volunteer’s hand as she pulled my hand and ran. They helped me to get through the security because they weren’t given clearance for the inner backstage. Then I was alone.

I found volunteers who spoke English and directed me to where I was supposed to wait. I saw a group of probably only 150-200 people standing in line.. all waiting for the time that we were to be called. I was able to strike up a conversation with a couple of Brazilians who spoke English who quickly filled me in on what they knew. They were shocked that I only found about the invitation a couple of days ago. But both of they also possessed that look of complete shock and gratitude over the opportunity.

Then, the call came.

Another walk began - from the backstage to the front.

You can’t see me but I was among the other guests at the foot of the stage.
Still in disbelief, we were led to the VIP area at the foot of the stage usually reserved for priests and other VIP guests.

By the way, before I continue, I must clarify one thing. I was not beside the Pope contrary to the rumors that spread. I did not meet the Pope. And due to the last minute change of the Campus Fidei venue, we were at the VIP area rather than on the stage itself because there was no space. To be honest, I preferred it that way because we were directly in front of the altar.

Once again, please allow me to backtrack a little bit. I did not want to have any expectations for World Youth Day. I wanted to be open to all the experiences that He would allow to have. But, I wasn’t faithful to my own conviction. After all, it was the Adoration and Mass with the Pope that I was eagerly anticipating all this time. I had expected the heavens to be emptied of all the choirs of angels because they would be in Copacobana Beach that night. I even thought I’d faint at the mere sight of the Pope raising the Blessed Sacrament – and this was when I expected to be watching it on screen. No way did I expect to be where I was standing. So, you can expect my breathlessness at the thought of the glory of heaven opening and God the Father telling us in His awesome voice,”This is My Son, the Beloved. Listen to Him.” I expected my drown in my own tears as Mama Mary would show her face and tell me, ”My daughter, do whatever He tells you.” Oh yeah, I have quite the vivid imagination at times.

I don’t really cry easily. But, the dam behind my eyes seems to disintegrate every time I feel His Heart and Spirit embracing mine.  Just felt like I had to explain to defend myself. This is quite the personal post.

And then, it began. My heart started to swell as I found absolute truth in the words of Matt Maher’s offering of praise as he sang on His knees in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

Teach my song to rise to You. When temptation comes my way. When I cannot stand I fall on You, Jesus you’re my hope and stay… My one defense, my righteousness. Oh God, how I need You.

The moment the Holy Father raised the monstrance, more than three million people on along the 4KM strip of beach remained in silent adoration. Not a single sound wafted through the crowd for what was probably 10 seconds and seemed like eternity; nothing other than the waves crashing on the shore and the comfort of the wind that swept through the faithful.

Be still, and know that I am God – Psalm 46:10
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.
- 1 Kings 19: 11-12

I heard nothing. At the depths of my heart, I felt the LORD speaking to me. And I realized something that drove me to my knees to prostrate myself in front of my God.

Back in my parish, I would do my best to attend daily Mass and visit the adoration chapel as often as I could to help prepare myself for the pilgrimage. I would try and attend the weekly adoration and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Not to say I was regular but I tried. In my weak feeble efforts, I tried so as to better appreciate what I would feel when it would be the Vicar of Christ himself would be in front of me raising the Body of Christ for me to worship.

I was surprised when on that strip of beach a thousand miles away from my parish.. I didn’t feel anything different. No fanfare of holy trumpets blasting. No blinding heavenly light. No apparitions. (Talk about not expecting anything.. silly girl.)

There was no difference. It was as if I was back in my parish.

Then it hit me. And once again, I was humbled by the overflowing love of God.

It doesn’t matter where I am. It doesn’t matter where I go. It doesn’t matter how big the monstrance is or how beautiful the altar is. It doesn’t matter what language is being spoken. It doesn’t matter whether I am in the company of friends or absolute strangers. It doesn’t even matter who is holding the monstrance.. or if anyone is holding it at all.

When one is in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, one is, and will always be, in the presence of Christ Himself, in the divine presence of the Almighty, in the captivating warmth of His loving embrace.

It was something I’ve always known and yet never really understood. The words that my eyes have read, my ears have heard and my mouth has spoken has finally planted itself in my heart.
And once again, I was reminded just how loved I really am. How loved each of us really are.

The Divine Romancer reminded me once again,

”My daughter, you don’t have to travel to the ends of the world to find Me. I have always, and will always be with you. Yes, to the end of time. Open your heart to Me and there I will remain. Just as how you have always been in Mine. Be it in the desert or in the city streets, be in the voice of the taho man or in the loving whisper of your loved ones, it will always be Me proclaiming to the ends of the universe that I love you. And that you are Mine.”

More than the experiences, more than the friends, even more than the food I ate, if there was one thing that I took home with me from World Youth Day, it was love.

And in keeping with Divine Humor, the one thing that I took back with me was the one thing that I had all along.

My entire life I have been living within the embrace of the Beloved, and I choose to remain.

By Sis Apple Fuentes

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