I write this essay on the third day of the uplifting visit of Pope Francis to the country after his half day stopover at Tacloban City, ground zero of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) and nearby Palo, although the visit was cut short by another one of the innumerable storms that annually pound Eastern Visayas. Already we can say that for millions of Filipinos, the papal visit has exceeded expectations, on so many levels.
Pope Francis’ actuations, remarks, speeches, prayers and accomplishments in his short time in office had already surprised, delighted, alarmed, discomfited, raised the hopes or the hackles (depending on which side of the socio-economic-cultural divide one is in) of people around the globe even before he had set foot inside the country. But for most Filipinos, even the internet-connected ones (and lest we forget they are mostly in the urban centers), it was only as the Pope’s visit drew near that they experienced the explosion of information on the Pontiff (much of it in the form of trivia) that the local mass media provided.
A more serious and diligent search, however, uncovers more than the photo-ops that had gone viral -- the pope embracing a man disfigured by neurofribromatosis; eschewing protocol and security strictures and reaching out to the crowds of people greeting him; dancing with indigenous peoples and celebrating the blessings of nature; allowing children to upstage him while he delivered his speech; and clowning around with newlyweds..
One stumbles on innumerable statements and gestures that bespeak of this Pontiff’s simplicity, humility, openness and deep concern for the downtrodden. He has displayed an honest acknowledgement of the ills plaguing the institutional church and insight into the systemic evils that undergird social injustice, inequity and conflicts in the world today.
His smiling, kindly visage had been popularized long before by the life-size carboard figures distributed by local church authorities and with which selfie-crazed Filipinos could take pictures. It didn’t take long for commercial interests and enterprising politicians to cash in on the Pope fever: his face on tarpaulins, big and small, and in various memorabilia, cheap and pricey, grew in number to the extent that the Pope himself had, ahead of the visit, given feedback to church authorities that he should not be the center of attention but the gospel message he brings with him.
And he has not disappointed. His sincere intention to be with the people -- majority of whom are poor and struggling -- has penetrated through the concrete barriers, the phalanx of security forces, and the array of high government officials, church hierarchy and the well-heeled and well-connected who have been able to be physically closest to him.
He has appeared happiest, most at ease, most spontaneous and most heartfelt when waving at the huge welcoming crowds of ordinary people wherever he went; when addressing the throng of survivors of Yolanda and other calamities huddled in the wind and rain; when mingling with street children at a refuge run by a non-government organization; when calling on the bishops, priests, nuns, seminarians and lay leaders of the local Catholic Church to spread the Good News of the Gospel with a joyful, open-minded missionary zeal.
Pope Francis spoke from the heart when he disclosed in his homily at the mass held in the Tacloban airport that he had decided to come to the Philippines, and specifically to Tacloban, immediately after learning about the devastation Yolanda had wrought. He then apologized that it took him some time to make the trip.
He offered words of hope, of faith and then the comfort of silence when he frankly admitted that he was at a loss for words to express his profound solidarity with a people still suffering from the loss of their loved ones, their homes and all their earthly possessions; and now facing a bleak future with no jobs or livelihood, no decent housing and other basic necessities.
At the few, thankfully brief, official functions where he was received as the head of state, Pope Francis appeared stiff, his head and shoulders bowed and his face tired; although he shook hands with enthusiasm and allowed an assortment of government officials to kiss the papal ring.
His speech at the Presidential Palace held no surprises, especially for those already familiar with his earlier exhortations against corruption, dishonesty and abuse of power among economic, political and ecclesiastical leaders everywhere.
He did not single out the Aquino administration or even the Philippine landed and big business elite for perpetrating much of what are unjust, unchristian and inhumane in Philippine society. His forthright call that “political leaders be outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment to the common good” and his reminder of the duty to “break the bonds of injustice and oppression which give rise to glaring, and indeed scandalous, social inequalities” reverberated in the dirty, smelly, poverty-stricken streets of Manila and the rest of the country.
For his part President Benigno Aquino III, did a disservice to the Filipino people by greeting the Pope with a self-indulgent, self-serving, rambling and juvenile speech totally inappropriate for the occasion and distasteful to say the least.
He talked about his and his family’s travails under martial law to underscore his credentials as one who fights tyranny and oppression. He spoke about his reluctance to run for the presidency (the subtext: he is not power hungry) yet he responded to the call of duty to purportedly “effect real change” (the subtext: he is a reforming president). He praised the Philippine Catholic Church for its role in fighting the Marcos dictatorship but this was just an introduction to his griping about church leaders who had become critical about his regime allegedly to the point of pettiness.
He was completely silent about the issues hounding his presidency especially land monopoly by a few families (notably his own); economic policies that have deepened poverty and inequality; human rights violations accompanying the government’s counterinsurgency program; and an intractable armed conflict fueled by social injustice and government’s refusal to talk peace in earnest with revolutionary forces.
We share the hope and prayer that the visit of Pope Francis will bring more than fleeting feelings of being blessed by a holy man with a big heart for the least of God’s brethren. We hope it will rekindle a commitment to what he himself describes as a revolutionary struggle to achieve human dignity, social justice, equity, and a just and lasting peace. #
Published in Business World
19 January 2015