Covering Pope John Paul II in a time of pagers, analog
Just a month after turning 9, the Philippine Daily Inquirer moved to its spanking new building in Makati City and prepared to embark on an extensive coverage of a local event of international magnitude. I was dead set on being part of it.
Unopened carton boxes were scattered all over the place and the smell of paint still stuck to the new Inquirer building when the first story that carried the “The Pope in Manila” icon was published on Page 1 of the Jan. 7, 1995, issue. This was five days before Pope John Paul II landed in Manila for a pastoral and state visit.
Inquirer readers are used to the newspaper’s trademark run-up series—news stories published days before the actual major event. Run-ups serve as heralds of important events in the country, mostly of worldwide significance.
What was curious about the kickoff story was my byline on the main article, “He looked into my eyes and prayed,” a piece about Samantha Claire Martin who as a baby was carried and kissed by Pope John Paul II during his first Manila visit in 1981.
Inquirer followers knew me as the sportswriter covering the Philippine Basketball Association beat whose column, “Benchwarmer,” appeared weekly in the Sports section. But for this month, I volunteered to serve on the Inquirer JPII coverage team.
I asked permission from sports editor Manolo Iñigo to take a furlough from sportswriting to be able to cover this historic event.
I was a freshman at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) and among the throng that welcomed Pope John Paul II in 1981. I couldn’t pass up on the privilege of meeting him up close, this time as a journalist.
I also sought and received the imprimatur of Inquirer editor in chief Letty J. Magsanoc for this interim assignment.
The JPII coverage was an all-hands-on-deck situation, with Inquirer news editor Jun Engracia heading the team composed of almost all the paper’s news reporters, photographers and one volunteer—me.
Our mission was to produce the most comprehensive coverage of Pope John Paul II’s five-day visit. We were ordered to capture all the details—the usual, the unusual and the in-between—and present these to the readers of the Inquirer.
The Inquirer standard was to bring the readers to the ringside wherever the Pope went in the Philippines.
To make sure the whole team was connected and interactive, the Inquirer handed to all reporters and photographers the latest state-of-the-art gadgets of the era—two-liner pagers, handheld radios, cassette recorders for reporters and rolls and rolls of black-and-white film for photographers.
This was the era when the coolest cellular phones were analog and the must-have gadget of the day—the Motorola MicroTAC—was quite unreliable. Video belonged to the broadcast realm, as VHS tapes and machines were too bulky.
Two Inquirer news bases were set up. Papa Base 1 was at the Makati office, Papa Base 2 was at the press center in the Philippine International Convention Center.
All reporters and photographers were assigned call signs— names they would use when communicating through the handheld radios. I was christened Papa One, a privilege I still cherish nearly two decades later.
For five days, the Inquirer delivered on its promise of a comprehensive reportage. On the day of Pope John Paul II’s arrival, the Inquirer declared that the Philippines had caught the “Pope fever.” By today’s social media standards, that term means “went viral.”
Even before the Pope’s Alitalia plane landed in Manila, the Inquirer had been publishing on the front page and in the Metro and Across the Nation sections stories about World Youth Day, the main reason for the papal visit.
Aside from gripping photos and stories, the coverage also included bits and pieces of information that the reporters picked up and the editors compiled daily in the “Reporter’s Notebook” section, enhancing the depth and breadth of the coverage.
Using Facebook and Twitter jargon, what were trending then were the hashtags #TotusTuus, #JP2WeLoveYou, #WYD95. The soundtrack of those days was “Tell the World of His Love,” the anthem of World Youth Day.
Among the notable stories we published were:
Fr. Aris Sison’s carrying a Schwarzkopfian job as chief operating officer of the Papal Visit Media Center. (Gen. Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. was a central figure in the US military operation for the liberation of Kuwait from Iraq in 1991).
The ubiquitous female closed-in security of the Popemobile, then Airwoman Bernadette Alvarez.
“Filipinos are phenomenal,” the Pope told the crowd at UST.
Eduardo Bayot, a helper at the Manila Archbishop’s Palace, was among the 70 preselected to receive Holy Communion from Pope John Paul II.
The Pope was traveling to Manila just after recovering from the flu, UST Rector Fr. Rolando de la Rosa said.
PDI founder serenades
Senior citizens, including Inquirer founding chair Eugenia D. Apostol, were among the groups serenading the Pope at his residence in the Apostolic Nunciature on Taft Avenue, Manila.
“Phenomenal people, monumental garbage: A terrible hangover,” the headline set by then Metro section editor Recah Trinidad on the story the day after the historic Papal Mass at Manila’s Rizal Park.
It was only then Vice President Joseph Estrada, among the high-ranking government officials in Malacañang, who kissed the Pope’s ring (also called the Fisherman’s Ring) while genuflecting.
Female usher Lorraine Puyat was blessed thrice in the five times she handed to the Pope the Catholic Mass Media Award trophies.
The day after
And the day after Pope John Paul II left, the Inquirer capped its papal visit coverage with a big picture of the Pontiff on the front page, showing him steadying himself with a cane in his left hand, with his right hand lifted in blessing.
The caption read, JOHN PAUL II: Portrait of the man who held the Filipinos for five days in the palm of his hand.
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