By Aida B. del Rosario
When did we, his immediate nieces and nephews, start calling him Papa Manuel? I've never thought of this before because it was just so. Children are followers and are not supposed to ask questions. Maybe it was because he was an idealist, a perfectionist and very strict like a pope that the family teased him by calling him Pope (Papa in Spanish) Manuel. Or is it short for papay, a title before the name of an uncle in Baao. There were times when I heard whispers from friends – Is he her father? - when they heard me say Papa instead of tio or tiyong. There are two answers to that question: Biologically – no, emotionally – certainly yes.
I can't remember when I learned that Papa Manuel was born prematurely, that he had a wet nurse because his mother died after giving birth, that he was so tiny, he had to be kept warm with a rubber hot water bottle; that he was left-handed and had to learn to be right-handed when he entered the seminary because in those days, this was considered not only as an abnormality that is frowned on but also the belief that the left hand is the devil's instrument or something like that.
I've read years ago about how difficult it is to change from left to right-handedness, that it could create behavior problems since it was ingrained in the fetal brain. Did the devil do that??? Whenever I see someone writing with the left hand, like President Barack Obama, Papa Manuel comes to my mind. I strongly believe that his short tempered behavior may be the result of being trained to be “perfect”!!! His irritable behavior made a negative impact on priests and others who were affected by it. I know that many despised him and it worried me.
The earliest memory I have of him was in Salvacion, when I asked my Lola (Grandma, his stepmother) what those two furry animals are and where they came from, as she allowed me to feed them with kangkong. She said that they are cuneos (rabbits) and Papa Manuel brought them for us, the same answer I got at different times when I asked what “these” are (uvas - grapes) or “that" (manzanas -apples); the Hershey's kisses and the Almond Roca were just dulces. Those were some of the goodies that appeared when he came to visit his parents. I've always wondered where he got those rabbits.
When he became the Rector of the Peñafrancia shrine, he made Papa move our family to Naga. We stayed in one of the big rooms of the combento. It was surprising to find bats almost everywhere especially inside the dark shrine. They were exterminated with the renovation and the shrine was painted inside and out in preparation for the silver jubilee of Our Lady of Peñafrancia.
The silver jubilee celebration was the biggest event I've ever experienced. My parents were greatly involved with the food preparation, while I helped with setting the very long table. After the high mass, the Papal Nuncio and the bishops in red robes and other dignitaries congregated in the big hall of the convent, socializing while waiting to be seated for breakfast, which was closer to lunch. It seemed as if all the bishops in the country left their diocese to come to Naga. Had I kissed all the bishop's rings, I could have accumulated enough indulgences to last a lifetime.
He started to travel to the US and Europe in the 1950s to raise funds for a church renovation or to build a seminary. He usually had something for us on his return, like my first camera from the US, a filigreed golden butterfly brooch from Spain, a small bottle of perfume from France, and my favorite – a pin with a dangling tiny golden bell that tinkled when I moved; it had an etching of St. Peter's Square and Basilica around it.
After I left the country, I realized that Gubat Sorsogon, Virac Catanduanes, and Calbayog Samar all had beautiful beaches and I wondered if he had the influence to get those appointments so that his nieces and nephews could vacation there. I had my first airplane ride from Virac, alone in a small plane that jumped through air pockets, to return home in time for our teenage group's party in San Nicolas. The scariest storm I experienced was in Gubat. I thought we would be blown away in the night with the nipa hut we were occupying near the seashore. After I passed the nurses' board exams, he invited me to the town fiesta in Calbayog. He introduced me to the medical director of the new hospital, who was also from Bicol (Sorsogon), who offered me a job there. I bet Papa Manuel had something to do with the offer I couldn't refuse.
I heard from my brother that he had visited remote barrios and islands by motorized banca, where the people had not seen a priest, much less a bishop; that he baptized and confirmed children and old people.
He visited me when I was in Minnesota and again in Canada, either on his way to Rome to attend Vatican II or from there going home.
He was in Rome when I wrote that I was getting married. He immediately replied that he was coming to officiate at the wedding. His wedding gifts were three crucifixes, one for each bedroom for a new house and a crystal bead rosary, all “blessed by the Pope” he said. The next time he came to visit me, I had two children. Although he was now their lolo (grand-uncle), I preferred that they call him Papa Manuel. It broke my heart to see him walk with a limp, with his arm (can't remember if it was the right or left) in a sling. This was the result of a stroke while he was in Rome. His speech was slurred but understandable. He always had a chewing gum to keep the saliva flowing to help his speech.
We went to Mt. Rainier, a popular tourist spot here. It was summer, (July) but the mountain was covered with snow, “...just like the Alps.” he said. My sister Salve and his priest attendant made snowballs and threw them to each other. Before he left, two of my friends asked him to bless their new house and he did, limping through the rituals.
Sadly, I became a big disappointment to him by getting divorced. He came for the last time. As soon as his volcanic sermon started, I went into a survival stance by bowing, and repeated in my head - “Lord, forgive him for I don't know if I can; forgive him for he knows not that there was a wedding but no marriage, that if I continue to be both father and mother to my three children and stay married, it would be suicide and that is a sin, so which is the bigger sin - divorce or suicide; and I don't want my kids to go through what I went through – losing my mother and step-mother before their children were grown; that I was wedded to one who was so sure somebody like me will never get a divorce no matter what.” I can't remember what was said before and after “...sayang ang pinag-aralan... you went to the best Catholic schools...” Life is full of irony, so I had to learn to smile with the punches.
My favorite funny story was told by my brother and male cousins who have served him at Mass – that he would get very upset at any little mistake and would scold them in Baaeño right there at the altar while his head was bowed, and since nobody else could understand the language, the other servers thought he was saying a special prayer.
When I was at UST, he came to visit me at the Nurses' Home. The Spanish nun-dorm-matron, who had never been face to face with a bishop, could hardly talk to tell me to go downstairs pronto, pronto! Since I was the only one there, I thought there was a medical emergency. With pursed lips, she signaled me with her eyes to the waiting room. And there was Papa Manuel pacing faster than an expectant father. Before I could kneel to kiss his ring, he had started to scold me - “Ono ta mala mong uban na pasini?” (Why did it take so long for you to come here?) What else could I do but to listen, that he had to hurry back to the seminary, that I better hurry and tell him what I needed for my graduation. Can you imagine seeing a bishop in a white flowing garb, walking from the seminary located at one end of the huge campus to the opposite end where I was!
That was my beloved Papa Manuel. There are many more stories, like bringing a green mango for me from the Philippines when I was in Canada. Maybe next time, I'll tell you how he got through customs inspection.
I used to feel bad and intensely frustrated that I was not available to take care of him, who anticipated my needs and gave me so much for a better future.
I am most grateful for the chance to have filed the fingernails and tied the shoe laces of the specially made boots of “the little bishop that could.”
I thought it best to include the following note to show the inaccurate online news reports: The Second Vatican Council was opened on October 11, 1962 by Pope John XX111 (after four years of planning since 1959). There were four sessions. The last three sessions were in 1963 - 1965 presided by Pope Paul V1 ( following Pope John).The final session opened - September 14, 1965, and closed - December 8, 1965. Papa Manuel could have had the stroke after 1964 because that was the year I was married.