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‘Jesus comes first’

My late husband Felix, who was then the editor of Cor Manila, the official Manila archdiocesan paper, and I were having breakfast with Jaime Cardinal Sin at Villa San Miguel on Jan. 11, 1977, when His Eminence asked Felix if he could go to the Manila International Airport (MIA) to greet and welcome Mother Teresa in his name. She was planing in that afternoon to officiate the inauguration of her house for abandoned children in Binondo the next day. Felix informed the Cardinal that he couldn’t since he would be with the foreign correspondents, and so suggested that I go instead. The Cardinal turned to me and asked, “Nena, will you go in my place?” To which I readily consented.

At four o’clock, together with Noli and Peachy Yamsuan, and Rina and Pie David of Cor Manila, I was in MIA. (I’m referring to the old MIA, which was where the domestic airport is located at present. The Ninoy Aquino International Airport or Naia had not yet been built, much less named then.) After the plane had landed and the doors opened, Mother Teresa came down the stairs by herself (I don’t recall any sisters with her), strong and energetic in her sandals and sari habit, and we advanced to meet her. Apart from us, there were two foreigners who were awaiting her. At the time, she had not yet gained international prominence; that would come two years later with her winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.

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After introducing myself and greeting her in the Cardinal’s name, I asked for her claim stubs so that her luggage could be picked up for her while we went through immigration. She looked at me and laughed. Of course you’ve heard of her wonderful sense of humor and of how, when she talked to you, she gave you her undivided attention so that, at the moment, you felt you were the only one that mattered. And why is that so? Because, in her words, she saw God in every person she met. With a twinkle in her eyes, she said, “My luggage? But I have no luggage except this,” pointing to her canvas tote bag. “This contains my breviary, missal, a few personal things and a change of sari. I have everything I need here.” Talk of traveling light.

I could hardly believe my eyes and ears. At last I had met a truly authentic person, one who was totally focused, fully integrated—body, soul and spirit—whole, and thus, holy. Someone who took and lived the words of the Gospel literally, without alteration, adulteration or watering down. Take nothing for your journey, Jesus said. Was she for real? I asked myself. I looked into those deep-set eyes of hers and knew deep in my heart that truly she was for real.

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When we arrived at Villa San Miguel, I led her to a chair, telling her that I would notify the Cardinal of her arrival, but she stopped me, holding me by the wrist, and asked, “Do you know where the private chapel is?” I looked at her and nodded. “Please bring me there.” Reading the question in my eyes, she explained, “Because, you see, Jesus comes first.” Those three words bore themselves deeply into my heart. “Jesus comes first.” In effect she was telling me, let the archbishop of Manila wait, let the whole world stop for all they matter, because Jesus comes first—and always!

I led her up to the curved staircase and to the small air-conditioned chapel on the second floor. As soon as she entered, she dropped to her knees in total and complete adoration before the Tabernacle.

For an ordinary mortal like myself, it takes some time to get into the rhythm of prayer, to collect my distracted thoughts and achieve a modicum of silence. But in her case, as soon as she had knelt down and bowed her head, she was caught up—engaged!—in prayer. In fact, she had herself become prayer.

Bent behind her, I could hardly breathe in that rarefied atmosphere. I was completely awed by His presence in front of us, and her presence in front of me. A deep silence descended. There were only the three of us. I was enveloped in peace.

Looking back, I realize how graced I was on that day. Truly, our Lord in His mercy, goodness and love grants me such moments of grace from time to time and when I least expect them. All purely gratuitous, of course. Occasionally, He literally takes my breath away, and I can only sigh in my heart, Dear God!

I don’t know how long we were there. After some time, she got up and I opened the door for her. Outside, she smiled at me and announced. “Where is His Eminence? I’m now ready for him.”

Lourdes Syquia Bautista, 91, is a retired professor of the University of Santo Tomas, widow, mother of 12, grandmother of 27, and great grandmother of 14. Please e-mail comments to [email protected]

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TAGS: Jaime cardinal sin, Mother Teresa, Prayer life
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