World Youth Day Baby
By Xavier Alpasa SJ
All I wanted was to be rich. That was all I had in mind when I was trying to climb the corporate ladder. I gave it my all - worked hard, earned a Master's degree, networked and voila! There I was on top of the Eiffel Tower shouting a la Leonardo di Caprio, ‘I am the king of the world!’ That was in 1997, when I decided to join the Yuppeace delegation for the Journees Mondiales de la de Jeunesse (French for World Youth Day - fellow Yuppeace, Ricky Herrera, and I even took lessons to be able to, at least, pronounce that properly.
Days before the JMJ proper, we went to another part of Paris for the Asian Youth Day (AYD) with other Asians who would also be attending the JMJ. To our surprise, when the Indian delegates, assigned as emcees, didn’t show up, the organizers asked the Philippine delegation to take over. Issa Isaac and moi were soon onstage, impromptu AYD emcees with Fr Armand Robleza SDB, as le directeur.
Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, At Night
It was a déjà-vu moment for all three of us, as we reprised our roles in WYD 1995! Two years earlier, Issa and I hosted, while Fr Armand directed the Youth Vigil for WYD Manila. It was a rare blessing to emcee an event for an audience of four million (a human carpet stretching from Quirino Grandstand in Luneta and far beyond), rarer still, to be standing so close to Pope John Paul II, for whom the mammoth crowd lovingly cheered ‘JP II, WE LOVE YOU!!!’ Little did I know then, that in the depths of my heart, God was cheering, ‘Xavier, I love you!’
AYD 1997 galvanized what began as faint stirrings in WYD 1995. Just like thoughts, which psychologists say deepen and expand, the overwhelming gratitude I felt for the privilege of serving Him again on that Parisian stage grew and transformed me, but this time beyond thinking, beyond imagination. My whole being was being pulled towards this profoundly powerful force that would not let go.
During the vigil later that night, when all that could be seen from the stage was a sea of flickering candles, undulating to a solemn rendition of the animation song ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine!’, I suddenly realized that (thanks to my office mate, Claire Tenefrancia, who first invited me) all the retreats and talks with Fr Armand had prepared me, as soil is tilled and enriched before sowing, for this ultimate religious encounter, which opened my heart . . . ready at last for the seed of a religious vocation.
When we were singing the WYD 1995 anthem, ‘Tell the World of His Love’, back in Manila, little did I know that I would actually be telling the world of His love, by preaching, witnessing and proclaiming it as a religious. Not long after WYD Paris, I was drawn to enter the Society of Jesus.
For me then, WYD was not just a day or an event, but a religious experience - before, during and long after. When I finally decided to enter the seminary, I realized I would literally have to sell more than just the shirt off my back. I was not only my family’s breadwinner, I had just taken out a loan of more than a million pesos to build our house. It was impossible to leave and still help my parents with this huge debt - or so I thought!
When I shared my predicament with Fr Armand he advised me to write a letter begging for Php500/month for two years. We figured that with fewer than a hundred respondents we would be able to raise a million. I wrote the email, but couldn’t send it out. I felt it would make my whole world crumble, ego included. Then I took the leap of faith, hit the send button and ran away from the computer.
Eventually, as my email got forwarded and forwarded and help started pouring in, I found myself ‘running’ again, this time, towards the Sacred Heart Novitiate. Literally and metaphorically, friends, strangers, angels brought me to the gates which opened the path to my priestly life.
I professed my perpetual vows as a Jesuit priest in 2000. And thanks to the sponsorship of anonymous donors and generous friends, I was also blessed to be a delegate to Giornata Mondiale dela Gioventu 2000 in Rome (otherwise, an impossible dream for one living on a Php150/month novitiate allowance).
There were three WYD’s from 1995 to 2000; each had its own theme, which remarkably coincided with the major milestones in my vocation journey.
WYD Manila 1995 ‘As the Father has sent me so am I sending you’
I was sent [to host a WYD event for four million – the largest WYD attendance, to date]
WYD Paris 1997 ‘. . .Come and See’
I finally decided to come and truly ‘see’
when I entered the Arvisu House Jesuit Pre-novitiate that year.
WYD Rome 2000 ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’
I experienced Emmanuel many times over in the gift of my priesthood and the added blessing of being a WYD pilgrim in the Eternal City in a Jubilee year!
Three World Youth Days made me a WYDay baby... forever a child of the Father who continues to send me to His other children.
We thank Ms Vernnie Creencia and Ms Lissa Cruz for their invaluable contributions to this feature.