A life-changing encounter with a pope

His life was relatively comfortable. He had a good-paying job, an active social life, and a nice spacious apartment. After his encounter with a pope, everything changed.

Rolando Villanueva, now 54, grew up in a devout Catholic family in Manila. At the age of 22, he left his hometown to work in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

Admittedly, his life was almost perfect. He had the time and money to go to disco-bars, go out of town for a long holiday, and provide for his family back home.

He was not having a sinful life; his existence was just too convenient. “It was a happy-go-lucky-and-jolly kind of life. And I was happy,” he said.

Changes, however, came when he was invited to serve as the first Filipin lay minister in St. Joseph Church in Abu Dhabi.

“I decided to slow down a bit. The nightlife was reduced, and I started to spend more time for church work,” Villanueva said.

In the 1990s, he had a very rare opportunity to meet Mary Teresa Bojaxhiu, commonly known as Mother Teresa and honored in the Catholic Church as St. Teresa of Calcutta.

The Albanian-Indian Catholic missionary nun visited Abu Dhabi. “I prepared for more than a week. I applied lotion on my hands because I know I was going to hold her hands,” he said.

On the day of the meeting, Villanueva, was shaking when he shook hands with the missionary sister.

“Then she asked if I am a priest. I replied with a very big ‘no’,” he told LICAS News. “I never imagined myself being a priest. It’s not that I didn’t like it, but I didn’t picture myself in that kind of life.”

The nun who founded the Missionaries of Charity then told him that he has “a hand of an angel.” Villanueva admitted he was ashamed of himself.

“I was embarrassed because she had a hand of a farmer or the hand of a carpenter. She had a hard-working hand while mine is soft and clean,” he said.

Villanueva took the experience as a challenge to become more grounded. He dedicated the majority of his free time to the Church and played major roles in the ministry.

His service in the Catholic Church in Abu Dhabi ended in 2000 when he left his job and went back home. “I took a rest from work and gave myself time for my family back home,” he said.

In the same year, he joined the World Youth Day celebration in Rome as one of the two million delegates from at least 157 countries.

One of the events in the 15th World Youth Day was a chance for a few selected young people to meet with Pope St. John Paul II in a private session.

Villanueva’s name was picked up. “It was unforgettable. There were millions of young people seeking the pope’s audience and I was one of the few selected,” he said.

Villanueva revealed that they were given a list of questions that the pontiff will ask them one by one. He read the list over and over while waiting for his turn.

Finally, he was called and told to get near the pope. He was shaking, his face turned pale white, and almost no thoughts running in his mind.

He bowed his head, reached for the pontiff’s hand, and kissed the pope’s ring. Then he looked him into the eyes waiting for a question, which he rehearsed to answer.

“Then Pope John Paul II looked me in the eyes also and asked me, ‘What do you want to become in the future?’ he said. Suddenly, I had a blank mind,” said Villanueva.

“That question was not on the list they gave us. Then out of the blue I said, ‘I want to become a priest’,” he told LICAS News.

After hearing it, the pontiff hugged Villanueva and whispered to him, “I have something to give you.”

Pope St. John Paul II took something from his pocket and gave it to Villanueva. It was the pontiff’s personal rosary.

Villanueva was still speechless while he received the rosary. Before leaving his presence, the pontiff “told me to remember him when I become a priest.”

He still cannot believe what he said in front of Pope St. John Paul II. He cannot believe that the pope gave him his rosary either.

“It never really crossed my mind that I will become a priest. And never I thought that I will receive something from the Holy Father. Who am I to receive a beautiful gift from him,” he said.

His encounter with Pope St. John Paul II never left Villanueva’s mind and the rosary never left his possession.

But what made him so anxious was his answer to the pontiff’s question.

“My mind was blank at that very moment. It was not my mind that was speaking to him when he asked me that question. It was my heart that answered,” he said.

In 2001, Villanueva gave up his profession, turned down an offer for a high-paying job, and left his spacious home for good. At the age of 36, he entered the seminary.

“It was not easy because I was used to a convenient and comfortable life. In the seminary, I did not have a mattress, I can’t go to the disco or go out of town for a vacation,” he said.

It was a momentous change for the young professional. “Many times, I feel tired and exhausted. Especially when I witness suffering and pain. To be a priest is a sacrifice,” he said.

But whenever fatigue or doubts sets in, “I just grope for the rosary in my pocket, pray, and recall the pope who changed my entire life.”

Father Villanueva (widely known as Father Rolly), now the social action director of the Apostolic Vicariate of San Jose in the northern Philippines, celebrated his 7th year as a priest a week before Pope Francis’ apostolic visit in Asia.

In a LICAS News interview, the priest challenged the young people in Thailand and Japan, where the pontiff is visiting, “to let your heart speak and discover the vocation in you.”

“I hope the journey of Pope Francis in Asia this year will serve as a spark to inspire young people to serve the Church as men and women of the cloth,” he said.

Father Rolando Villanueva of the Apostolic Vicariate of San Jose in the northern Philippines celebrates Mass on Nov.18. The priest said he decided to enter the seminary after his encounter with Pope St. John Paul II in Rome in 2000. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

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