Filipino Catholics and ‘The Pope of Mercy’

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Last of three parts

After covering the main tenets of Francis’s papacy, this article now focuses on how Filipino Catholics can advance his agenda and help shape the future of the Church.

Plainly, Filipinos are among the most devoted, if not delirious about the Pope, any pope.

When John Paul II said Mass in Rizal Park over three decades ago, an estimated 5 million joined the Eucharistic celebration. But even more significant than devotion to the Holy Father is the Filipino faithful’s global reach.


One set of numbers spells it out: of the 1.5 million Catholics in Saudi Arabia, a good 5 percent of the population, 1.2 million are Filipinos. In many other places where Catholics are a minority, including much of East Asia, the Filipino faithful form the active core of many local congregations, as can be seen at Masses in several Asian capitals.

So when the Muslim kingdom hosting Islam’s holiest places of Mecca and Medina, recently made the unprecedented donation of land for the building of its first Catholic church, the Saudi rulers may not just have shown their positive regard for Pope Francis and his words and actions toward Islam. The Saudis also showed their own regard for one of the country’s largest expatriate groups, who would no longer have to pack embassies for Sunday Mass once the church is erected.

In Europe, on the other hand, where practicing Christians are dwindling, Filipinos are filling churches once again. And where they become wives and mothers in European families, the offspring are often christened in the faith, increasing the number of baptized Catholics in some countries like Denmark.

So if Pope Francis, like Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI before him, want to see the Church flourish and spread the faith, the global diaspora of mostly Catholic Filipinos clearly plays a frontline role. Or as leading Vatican journalist John Allen Jr. put it at his recent Tagaytay talk, addressing his audience of Filipino believers: “Thank you for what you have done, are doing, and will continue to do.”

Filipinos are ‘the new Irish’
Allen adds that the hundreds of Filipino priests in the United States are indispensable to their parishes. “If they went back home,” he said, “we might as well turn out the lights and put up ‘Going Out Of Business’ signs at churches.” Filipino priests and nuns are “the new Irish,” providing so many clergy and religious to the Church just as Ireland did in the 19th Century, and Rome in the 17th.

Thus, Allen argues, since they are training more and more of the Church’s corps of priests and missionaries, Philippine seminaries and clergy are shaping the future of Catholicism. Thus, just as St. Paul’s preaching across the Roman Empire shaped the core tenets and future directions of the early Church, the evangelization by Filipino clergy mark out the contours of the faith in the places they espouse it.

Moreover, as Allen explained, with Pope Francis also espousing inculturation, by which the Christian faith and liturgy are given form in the many cultures of Catholic communities, Filipinos across the globe are spreading the faith with a distinctly Filipino cultural stamp, from our devotions to the Blessed Virgin, the Holy Child, and the Sacred Heart of Jesus; to the songs and gestures, like linking hands in the Our Father, marking the Masses celebrated and attended by Filipinos.

A further area of influence may lie in the issues directly affecting the clergy, such as celibacy. Allen sees the question of maintaining this discipline as one that may be decided not by theological argument, but the demands of evangelization, especially in the developing world, where most Catholics now live.

With dwindling vocations, the priesthood is not only aging, but also facing daunting numbers of faithful to provide with pastoral care, with ratios of one priest to 20,000 faithful in Latin America. And with Francis continuing his recent predecessors’ evangelization thrust — “Get the Church out of the sacristy into the streets,” as he put it — priestly formation and policies will be increasingly influence by missionary needs.

Who has Francis’ ear?
During the press conference with Allen, this writer asked which Church leaders and groups have the ear of Francis. Allen stressed that the Pope is his own man and does not have an influential close confidante as John Paul II and Benedict XVI did. But there are key figures and entities he listens to perhaps more than others.

First, there is a group of eight reformist cardinals who came together with Francis during the deliberations before the conclave that elected him. Among them is Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, who was designated at last month’s consistory of cardinals to be one of three prelates who will oversee and frame the discussions in the Synod of Bishops on the family convening later this year.

Francis is also said to be listening more to religious orders or congregations, being himself a scion of the Jesuit order. He has also espoused more consultation and collegial decision-making. With such openness to a broad range of voices and views, those of the Church in developing nations shall be heard more than ever. And as Filipinos further increase their numbers and involvement in pastoral, missionary and religious work, they will also influence what the congregations advice Francis.

Filipinos and the future of the Church
Both clergy and media asked Allen about the papal potential of Cardinal Tagle. The Vatican watcher said that at the conclave, there was a sense that the globally popular Tagle could be pope, but might not yet be ready. Besides, Allen adds, Tagle is young enough “to have another bite of that apple.” More important, having been mentioned among the papabili who could have succeeded Benedict, the cardinal has garnered a global audience for his Filipino perspective on Church issues.

Of course, of even greater influence on Catholicism’s present and future is the collective endeavors for the faith that 85 million Filipino faithful here and abroad. Yes, we are proud and keen to have Cardinal Tagle and more Filipino leaders of the Church gain influence and stature.

But as Francis urges, evangelization is every Christian’s duty and calling. Hence, we Filipino Catholics must all exert our utmost for the Gospel and the salvation of the world. That will do the most to bring our people’s unique gifts for the enrichment of Catholicism. So help us God.

(The first part was published last Wednesday, and the second on Monday.)

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