Thursday, April 28, 2011

Pope John Paul II launched my writing career

(This piece came out on page 1 of the Inquirer in 1995 when Pope John Paul II visited the Philippines for the second time. Here is a shortened version to celebrate his beatification on May 1, 2011.)

WELL, AS they say, everyone has a story to tell. I have mine. And I might as well tell it too.

The first feature story I ever wrote in my life got me and the magazine editor in big trouble with the Marcos dictatorship. Six months later, on Feb. 21, 1981, Pope John Paul II handed me a rock trophy for what I wrote.

I was not even a journalist at that time. I was working with a church-related human rights organization. My background was clinical psychology and for some time my world was psychometrics and counseling, until I became a religious novice and metamorphosed into a human rights worker. That was when the writing began.

When the Pope came in 1981, I covered his visit for a news agency, and I was able to see the Pope up close. But it was during the closed-door Catholic Mass Media Awards ceremonies (held at the Radio Veritas auditorium) that I was able to come even closer.
I was covering the affair and had to dress formally because I was also a nominee. The Pope came in a helicopter. His address to communicators in Asia was aired live. Then the Pope disappeared for a while to meet with persons with leprosy. The Pope returned to the stage and the winners’ names were called.

I was not dumbstruck when I heard my name. Not that I was so sure of my writing. I just felt a very calm soothing feeling sweeping over me. It was like everything was in slow motion.
Former UP President Salvador P. Lopez and Bishop Justino Ortiz were onstage to assist His Holiness. I went up the stage and kissed the Pope’s hand. Then he handed me the trophy. I felt his hand tighten around my head. The Vatican photographer clicked twice.
What did this mean? What was God telling me? I asked myself. What was written on the plaque gave me goose bumps all over. “In recognition of outstanding achievement in interpretive reporting that dramatized the implication of government action which impinged upon the culture and survival of an ethnic community. Written with a depth of human understanding and a passion for the truth.” I wanted to sing the Magnificat.

The feature I wrote was on Macliing Dulag, now immortalized as a Cordillera great, the chief of the Butbut tribe, the slain Kalinga brave who opposed the Chico River Dam. (Last Sunday, April 24, 2011 was the 30th anniversary of his death.) Because of that story (with great photos that I took) my editor Letty J. Magsanoc and I were grilled separately by the defense department. A photo of myself being castigated before a panel of military men led by Defense Undersecretary Carmelo Barbero landed on the front page of the biggest newspaper then. Police reporter Ramon Tulfo covered the interrogation. I have a transcript of that interrogation.

I still have copies of the newspaper (July 1980) which had on its front page four photos—those of the Pope wiping tears away while meeting with lepers in Portugal, Imelda Marcos in Japan and Miss Philippines Chat Silayan winning third in an international beauty contest and myself. What company, I thought.

Anyway, a few weeks after the 1981 CMMA and the Pope’s visit, I received two big color photos of myself with the Pope. It came from the Vatican.

And the writing went on and on.

Things were never the same after that. I slowly became confident about writing. I wrote my second one—on the sex tours for the Japanese in Manila. The third feature got me in trouble again. This was on human rights violations committed by the military in Bataan. I was again grilled (for three hours) behind closed doors. I was also questioned about my story on the slain rebel priest Zacarias Agatep. That was not enough—the military slapped me with a P10-million libel suit.

In 1982, my house was ransacked by military men while I was out. They were searching for subversive materials but found none. My househelp told me that when the men found my photos with the Pope they said, “Aba, may sinasabi pala.” They did not take anything.

Fourteen years, some 300 feature stories, a movie and a book later (30 years today and more than a thousand articles), I still feel very unworthy to have been drawn into this profession.

If there is anything I want to do during this papal visit, it is to give a copy of my book to the Pope with a photo of ourselves together. To say, “You plunged me into this.” (I did send him a copy.)

My book “Journalists in Her Country” starts with my Macliing Dulag story and ends with an article titled, “Nobody Told Me It Would Be Like This.”

Your Holiness, nobody told me I’d be climbing mountains and bathing in freezing rivers. Nobody told me I’d be meeting with armed men and women who had spent away their youth in uncharted places. Nobody told me I’d be able to talk to the powerful and the mighty as well as to the poorest and most forgotten of the land. Nobody told me I’d have lunches, dinners and coffee with generals, politicians and movie stars; or that I’d be sleeping with prostitutes and embracing AIDS-stricken women. Nobody told me I’d have to track down members of a death squad and be breaking bread with them.

And doing the stories gave me great times—of terror and joy and sadness and fun.

I have not always agreed with everything the Pope has said. I am for women priests, he is not. I find the Church too patriarchal, its stance on population and family planning too narrow. I think the Pope should have been more understanding of priests who preach liberation theology.

But Pope John Paul II is an extraordinary human being who reached out and loved much and there is no arguing about his charisma and saintliness.

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