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The accidental ambassador

RETIRED Philippine Ambassador to the Vatican and known civic leader Mercedes Tuason comes from one of the elite families here in the country.

Thus the surprised expression from her daughter, Tourism Congress of the Philippines President Rosanna Tuason-Fores, who blurted on the day she accepted her appointment as the Philippine ambassador to the Vatican with the words: “Mommy, you never worked for your entire life and now you want to be an ambassador?”

The mother shrugged her shoulder, saying: “What can I do?

Rosanna replied: “Do you mean we will not be able to see you for one year.”

To which she replied: “Well, there will be no nagging for one year. Don’t you like that?”

Following the resignation of then-Philippine Ambassador to the Vatican Cristina Ponce Enrile due to health reasons, Tuason was appointed for one year by former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2009 through the intercession of Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales.

No politics

Tuason believes that because of Cardinal Rosales, her appointment as the Philippine representative to the Vatican was not, in any way, a political appointment.

She said she met Cardinal Rosales during one of her visits to Our Lady Mediatrix of All Grace in Lipa City. At that time, she was accompanied by a friend who was on pilgrimage there.

“We would go out on pilgrimage to Lipa, and he was there. That was the time when Teresing Castillo was also in Lipa, and when we met, I knew it was him who was responsible for my appointment to the Vatican,” Tuason said.

A pious woman of her generation, Tuason was actually elated being sent to the Holy See to continue her advocacy.

When Tuason was appointed to the Vatican in October 2009, she presented her diplomatic and academic credentials to Pope Benedict XVI in the summer residence of Castel Gandolfo palace as the new ambassador-extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of the Philippines to the Holy See.

She met with the pontiff and discussed major issues concerning Catholicism in the Philippines, more specifically the ongoing Typhoon Ondoy in 2013. Pope Benedict XVI escorted her to the Blessed Sacrament chapel in Saint Peter’s Basilica and was given the rare privilege of visiting the underground tomb.

When Arroyo was replaced by President Benigno S. Aquino III in 2011, she started to pack her belongings, but was prevailed upon by her sister, Betty, who lives in Rome,  and told her to not leave, believing that she will be reappointed.

True enough, Tuason’s credentials are simply overwhelming to be ignored by the succeeding president and she retained her post for the next six years, coming home only for Christmas and during her birthday celebrations.

A hardworking ambassador

“I loved meeting the Holy Father and going to OFWs’ [overseas Filipino workers] functions, where we enjoy their party during their day-offs,” Tuason said.

She said Rosanna, the worried daughter back home, would tell her on the phone: “Mommy, you should rest on Saturdays and Sundays!”

But she said: “But those are the worst days for the OFWs, if I do not get to meet them. That is their day-off,” she would laugh telling the BusinessMirror in her residence as she celebrated her birthday.

“I have to go to them. They always invite me to their functions and there are so many,” she said.

Tuason agrees that there are undocumented Filipinos living in Rome, but Pope Francis concedes to her that he likes the Filipinos’ culture of taking care of their parents or grandparents.

“The Holy Father said I really like the Filipinos because they take care of the old, unlike other countries who send their olds to nursery homes. Not the Filipinos,” Tuason quoting Pope Francis as telling her.

Data showed that Filipinos form the fourth-largest migrant community in Italy, after the Romanian, Albanian, and North African communities.

The Istituto Nazionale di Statistica, Italy’s statistics office, reported that there were 113,686 documented Filipinos living in Italy, whereas the number had been 105,675 in 2007.

Some 63 percent of Filipinos in Italy are women, mostly working as domestic assistants. The Department of Labor and Employment says there are approximately 60 Filipino organizations in Italy, most of which are church-based, although there are several cultural and civic groups, as well.

Tuason said Filipino workers are much admired in Italy because they are hardworking and honest, and in some instances, she was approached by Italians asking to secure the help of a Filipino driver.

“The Italians are good employers,” she said.

However, she added that there was one drawback to Filipinos working abroad—the lack of parental supervision for children that were left to the care of the relatives.

“In the beginning, we were helping the kids claimed by their parents to become Italian residents once they reached 18. But the children back home hardly work. They stay in the streets drinking because their parents send them money while being taking cared by their grandparents,” Tuason said.

Sprightly beyond her age, full of laugher and witty remarks, Tuason also relates that the most challenging part of her job was attending the numerous diplomatic functions and celebrations within the diplomatic community.

Not wanting to be seen as an unsophisticated envoy, Tuason, a teetotaler, said she usually nurses a glass of soda during those official functions, pretending it was red wine.

When it was time for her to serve fellow diplomats, Tuason said they enjoyed our version of lumpia, among others, cooked by her chef. The wives of ambassadors would often nag her to teach them how to cook Filipino dishes.

Meanwhile, despite the many diplomatic demands and activities, including the preparation for Pope Francis’s visit in January 2015, Tuason never acknowledges that the job was intimidating enough to someone like her not used to the daily grind.

“It’s really a grace given to us. When Pope Francis came to the Philippines, I was lucky I was allowed to go back with him in the plane,” she relates.

She said the Filipino community bid good-bye to the pope when he left Rome, but Tuason was on hand at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport to greet him when he deplaned. She probably was among the delegation who went out of the back of the plane ahead of the Pope, and then went toward the front of the plane to greet him.

Over her seven years in the Vatican, Tuason only had nine staff and hopes that the one who will replace her would devote their time to continue looking after the OFWs.

She agrees that those appointed to the Vatican need not be a religious person, but in her case, praying the rosary had been an engrained habit, and when she got too tired at night to pray, she does it the next morning.

Unpretentious and a true humanitarian

Tuason said following her husband’s death, she devoted her time helping the poor to forget the pain of her widowed life.

“When I lost my husband, the only way to forget was to go out and help. And when I saw the poor was suffering more than me, that made go out more often to help them,” she said.

She established the Tuason Community Center Foundation, which she personally ran from 1992 to 1995.

In February 2012, Tuason obtained the ecclesiastical license from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints for the relics of Saint Clare of Assisi from Foligno to tour the Philippines.

The same year, Tuason was awarded by the Vatican with the Order of Pius IX, Class of Dame, her significant contributions in the advancement of bilateral relations between the Holy See and the Philippines.

Over the years, Tuason also worked for various organizations with different advocacies, including the Red Cross Charities, Family Values Foundation of the Philippines, Bigay Puso Foundation, Center for Peace, Gawad Kalinga, Hero Foundation, Foundation of the Mission Angels, Our Lady of Mercy Halfway House Inc., Mission Society of the Philippines and Crusade for the Rosary of Families.  She was also inducted to the prestigious Dame of the Order of Malta and Pro-Life Philippines.

But there is another side to Tuason, as she told stories of how she would go to Italy’s mercatino to buy utensils and souvenir items.

“I was a born shopper. I love to shop. I go to that mercatino to buy plates. Very cheap and plenty. And when back in the Philippines, one priest came to me and said: “Mercy, I want this one but I need this for six people because I need it in the office.”   To which, Tuason said she would oblige.

But here in the country, Tuason revealed that she also shops at 168 in Divisoria.  She said her friends were aghast and have the expression of disbelief when they heard about it.

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