by Tony C. Diaz
HAGATNA, Guam (CNS) — It was a time many people on Guam will never forget. How often does a man destined to become a saint set foot on a tiny tropical island?
Just three years into his papacy, three and a half decades ago, a youthful Pope John Paul II did exactly that.
Strong and vibrant, now St. John Paul stopped on Guam for two memorable days Feb. 22-23, 1981, en route from the Philippines.
“I was elated,” said Mercy Sister Emiline Artero, 76.
“I was more than elated. God had blessed us that day when the pope put his foot on our tiny island out in the Pacific,” she told Umatuna Si Yu’os, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Agana.
On the 35th anniversary of the pontiff’s historic visit to Guam in the Marianas Islands, Catholics recalled highlights of what for them was an exhilarating visit.
“It was the first time that anybody that high in our church — our papal leader — came to our island, our little island,” said Sister Emiline. “It was really, really something.”
A longtime Catholic school administrator, Sister Emiline was among priests, religious and laypeople whom the pope greeted inside the archdiocese’s cathedral, in Hagatna, on the evening of his arrival Feb. 22, 1981.
The following day, he celebrated an outdoor Mass just several hundred feet from the Dulce Nombre de Maria (Sweet Name of Mary) Cathedral.
An estimated crowd of 20,000 people attended the papal Mass in Hagatna, Guam’s capital. It was a small number compared to the millions the pope had attracted in much bigger places such as the Philippines during his extensive pastoral pilgrimages throughout the world. However, it was one of the largest gatherings for this American island, which has been predominantly Catholic for hundreds of years. In 1981, Guam’s population was estimated at 105,000.
“It really was an amazing experience,” said Archbishop Anthony Sablan Apuron of Agana.
“The Holy Father was just so warm and welcoming,” he recalled. “I mean, nothing really fazed him and he tried to take things as they come.”
Then-Father Apuron was rector of the Agana cathedral. The head of the then-Diocese of Agana was Bishop Felixberto C. Flores, who entrusted Father Apuron with ensuring that the liturgy went smoothly during the pontiff’s visit.
Sandwiched between a trip to the Philippines and a trek to Japan to plead for the abolition of nuclear arms, Pope John Paul’s stop in Guam seemed to give a giant message to the people of the small island that, despite its size and distant location, the vicar of Christ on earth cared very much about its people.
His visit was followed by what many see as papal blessings for the Catholic Church on Guam:
— On Dec. 8, 1983, then-Father Apuron was appointed an auxiliary bishop of Agana.
— On May 20, 1984, Bishop Flores was named an archbishop of Agana, the diocese was elevated to an archdiocese and the cathedral was designated a minor basilica. The Diocese of Caroline and Marshall Islands and the Diocese of Chalan Kanoa also were subsequently established.
— In October 1985, Pope John Paul beatified Padre Diego Luis de San Vitores, the Spanish Jesuit who was martyred in Guam in 1672 while bringing Christianity to the island.
The pope shook many people’s hands, blessed babies presented to him by island moms and made a special visit to chronically ill patients at the Guam Memorial Hospital.
Cynthia Agbulos, 58, remembers waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning with her husband, Deacon Louie Agbulos, to see the pope. They walked a quarter mile down steep San Ramon Hill from their home in Agana Heights to join the masses of people in Hagatna.
“It was really exciting. There was a lot of energy in the air,” said Cynthia Agbulos. “For sure it was spirited-filled. We didn’t feel the time go by, but it was many hours.”
The Archdiocese of Agana’s future superintendent of Catholic schools was 23 years old at the time.
“I can remember that I was just so excited to see the vicar of Christ here on earth for the first time,” she continued. “Just hearing about him all these years and here I am.”
“I could feel the people around me, I could feel the excitement everywhere,” she added. “Just to see him give us his blessing it was like meeting Jesus Christ for the first time in person.”
As CCD coordinator for Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Agat, Lorena Chaco represented her parish at the outdoor Mass.
“That was a wonderful opportunity. I was able to receive Communion from the pope,” said Chaco, 66.
“There’s something about him. I really like his charism,” added Chaco. “He was very humble. A very humble pope when he came to Guam and that’s the one thing I really admire about him.”
Upon arriving at the Guam International Airport in the evening, the pope stooped down to kiss the ground at the airport tarmac.
“Dear brothers and sisters, with a heart full of gratitude, I set foot on your native soil and kiss it as an expression of respect and reverence for the people of this territory,” Pope John Paul said.
“At the same time, I give thanks to almighty God in whose wonderful providence I am allowed to greet the people of Guam and all the other Marianas Islands,” he said.
He thrilled everyone when he greeted the people in the Chamorro language, thanks to a prepared a list of phrases in the indigenous language that the diocese had sent in advance and that the pope had memorized.
Pope Benedict XVI beatified Pope John Paul May 1, 2001. In December 2005, the Archdiocese of Agana renamed its archdiocesan center to John Paul the Great Center for Evangelization.
Pope Francis canonized Pope John Paul April 27, 2014.