January 19, 2015

Beyond expectations

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

January 12, 2015

Welcoming the Pope of the poor to a country of the poor

More than a year ago when Pope Francis had barely warmed the papal office in Rome, his words and style of leadership signaled something new and welcome to an estimated more than one billion Catholics the world over, many of whom had become estranged from the institutional church over the decades.  He made known his bias for the poor, the downtrodden and the powerless: those teeming masses struggling to exist in the fringes of mainstream elite-dominated societies -- exploited, oppressed and almost forgotten.

He chose the papal name “Francis”, the first ever to do so, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi because he was especially concerned for the well-being of the poor.  St. Francis, he said, has “changed history…as he brought to Christianity an idea of poverty against the luxury, pride, vanity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the time.”

Pope Francis is thus also making history by giving new life and meaning to the spirit and message of St. Francis about being an instrument of peace – (beyond or deeper than the well-known “Prayer of Peace” erroneously attributed to him) – which is to be an instrument of peace with justice.

He did not mince words when he denounced the “cult of money” under capitalism or what some recognize as the destructive, overweening role of finance capital in the global economy to the point of further widening the divide between developed and underdeveloped/backward economies and between the rich and the poor within countries. 

He weighed in against the impending armed intervention of the US and other western powers together with their Arab allies in conflict-ridden Syria by presiding over a high-profile prayer for peace in Rome that was the signal fire for worldwide appeals against the bombardment of Syria.  Pope Francis thus helped avert the initiation of another US-led “humanitarian intervention” in a sovereign country and a likely repeat of what had happened in Libya.

Pope Francis has been shaking up the Roman curia as well as the Catholic Church hierarchies around the world about prioritizing the poor, a simple style of living and working, eschewing corruption and unsavory activities and being more pastoral than doctrinal in relating to those who have been alienated from the Catholic Church or are not part of the flock to begin with.

But perhaps what has most endeared him to ordinary believers and drawn the attention of even non-believers are his official as well as informal pronouncements about social issues such as homosexual relations, marriage and children out of wedlock, the future of the youth,  care of the sick and elderly, human trafficking, and so on.  His words and demeanor convinced many that this pope is really inclusive and non-judgmental, open to other views and not doctrinaire, and that he does not insulate himself from the dirty, rough-and-tumble world out there but is reaching out to the world’s peoples.  That Pope Francis speaks in a straightforward manner rather than in obscure terms is a definite plus factor giving him a deft communicator’s touch that has been adjudged as “instinctive” and “spontaneous.”

The Pope’s visit to a country like the Philippines is significant not only because most Filipinos are born and raised Catholic.  But, for this pope, because the vast majority of the nation’s hundred million plus people (the 10 million diaspora of overseas Filipino workers included) are poor and oppressed -- Pope Francis’ focus and primary concern. 

They are neglected survivors of calamities such as Yolanda. They are landless peasants and seasonal farm workers. They are the underpaid contractual workers. They are the army of the unemployed and underemployed; the oddjobbers in major towns and cities like itinerant vendors, tricycle drivers and others existing hand-to-mouth.  Even the social stratum of fixed income earners, loosely called the “middle class”, are fast slipping into penury.  They are the underclass in the vast countryside, in the ubiquitous pockets of urban decay and in the sprawling slum areas derisively called “squatter colonies”.

The government is preoccupied with ensuring that security will be tight for the visiting head of the Roman Catholic Church as well as the head of the Vatican state.  The Aquino administration is readying a list of convicted prisoners who will be pardoned in the spirit of “mercy and compassion” that is the theme of this year’s papal visit. (Some pundits say this is to curry favor with the international media, if not the Pontiff.) Philippine media is all agog about Pope Francis, particularly his simpatico public persona that has captured the hearts of many.

While security concerns are valid, these cannot override the main objective of the Pope’s visit to the Philippines and that is to reach out and touch the minds and hearts of the poor and oppressed by listening to their cries and giving them succor and hope.

Organizations of calamity survivors  such as People Surge in the Eastern Visayas are eagerly preparing for the Pope’s brief visit to Tacloban and Palo in Leyte in order to breach the cordon sanitaire that is a given for such a V.I.P.   They and other members of people’s organizations hope that the coming of the Pope will be an occasion to bring attention to long-standing grievances and demands.  They hope to find a sympathetic ear in Pope Francis, and perhaps an inspiring message of solidarity and support.

But it is clear to them that they must struggle themselves to resist anti-people and anti-poor government policies and programs and in turn advance their rights and welfare. 

One plea that the umbrella group People’s Committee to Welcome the Pope (People’s Welcome) will highlight is the call for the government (GPH) to release political prisoners (people imprisoned for their political beliefs) and to resume the formal peace negotiations with the revolutionary National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) in order to resolve the decades-old armed conflict and achieve a just and lasting peace.

It is not farfetched that Pope Francis may realize in his visit that there is a golden opportunity for him to use the immense influence and moral suasion of his office to help break the current impasse in the GPH-NDFP peace negotiations the way he broke a half-century impasse in diplomatic relations between the United States of America and Cuba. #

Published in Business World
12 January 2015