A Malayali doctor recalls driving John Paul II and Mother Teresa in his car.

For Jose Manuel, a doctor who offers free medical service to the poor, the canonisation of John Paul II on Sunday is a bit more personal than for an ordinary believer.

In 1986, when John Paul II, the then Pope, visited Kerala, Dr. Manuel had driven him in his car for some time, an experience he cherishes utmost.

“I got the opportunity during the Thrissur leg of the papal visit. My interaction with the Pope was for a little less than half an hour, but I consider it a blessing of a lifetime.”

In February 1986, Bishop Paul Chittilappilly, who was the then Vicar General of Thrissur, was given the task of organising the Papal visit. A prayer meeting was scheduled in Thrissur on February 7, after which the Pope was to fly by helicopter to Kochi for the Holy Mass and prayer meeting.

The Pope travels to the venue of each public appearance in his vehicle, the Papa Mobile, an open SUV from which he is visible to the public. Only one Papa Mobile was available, and after the vehicle had brought the Pope to Thrissur, it was to immediately travel from Thrissur to Kochi by road, so that it could be available in Kochi before the Pope got there.

The Pope was to travel from Thrissur to Kochi by helicopter, and the helipad was a few kilometres from the site of the prayer meet.

A vehicle was needed to transport the Pope and the Vicar General approached Dr. Manuel.

“I offered my car and my services as driver. The Vicar General accepted both, and I got the opportunity to drive the Pope to a temporary helipad at Cherur. The drive was only a few kilometres, but it took about 20 minutes since I drove at a speed of about 10 kmph. My intention was to provide all the faithful gathered on the streets a chance to have a glimpse of the Pope,” Dr. Manuel said.

“During the 20-minute drive, I managed to point out a few places of interest in Thrissur and have my youngest brother’s wedding ‘taali’ blessed by the Pope. The Pope was curious about the ‘taali,’ and the then Bishop Joseph Kundukulam explained its significance. Once we reached the helipad, the Pope blessed me and gave me a handful of rosaries. He gave me seven rosaries, and I have six siblings. It was a surreal experience,” Dr. Manuel said.

He also had the opportunity to drive Mother Teresa, another saint of the Catholic Church, from Kochi to Thrissur and back, during her visit in 1981.

“During the drive, I mentioned that I provided free medical service to slum-dwellers in Thrissur. Mother Teresa encouraged me and reminded me that mine is a vocation, not just a profession. When I dropped her back at the convent in Kochi, I made a cup of tea for me. Her humility floored me,” Dr. Manuel said.

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