In four days of festivity of love, faith and hope, Filipinos saw what they had expected and wanted to see in Pope Francis–and more. A humble pope, a simple pope, a pope of mercy and compassion, a truly wonderful human being. They saw, heard, and touched him with their eyes and hearts, and their own hands, and they saw a little bit more of themselves.
Not me but Jesus
His message was loud and clear: Don’t look at me, but look at Jesus, our Lord, and look at yourselves. You are a great people, a great nation, beloved of God; do not waste your moral, spiritual and material resources, but use them well to serve the poor and build the kingdom of God here on earth.
The Filipinos responded with all their piety and passion, and in their final Mass with him, filled Rizal Park (Luneta) with an estimated six million under inclement weather, surpassing the four million assembly that had attended Saint John Paul II’s World Youth Day Mass in 1995, which used to be described as the biggest human gathering ever seen on the planet.
Even non-Christians and non-Catholics welcomed him with great exuberance, and, except for some determined non-believers, even the usually irreverent and morally and spiritually challenged media commentators sounded like true converts in their comments on the Pope. The Pope tried to persuade everyone not to focus on his person but rather on Christ, his person and his message, but this appeared to fall on a lot of deaf ears. The running broadcast commentaries tended to treat him as a mega celebrity and the visit as a big showbiz event.
Our raincoat in the rain
In his final message of thanks to the Holy Father at Luneta, Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, ended eulogizing the Pope as “our light in the dark, our raincoat in the rain, and sunshine when it is cloudy, whose love is stronger than all typhoons, whose love is typhoon-proof.” Somehow the tribute reminded me of lines in W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues”——“He was my North, my South, my East and West, my working week and my Sunday rest, my noon, my midnight, my talk, my song.”
We learned more of ourselves from the Pope
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle brought a very wide and warm smile to the Pontiff’s face when the Archbishop of Manila said, “Every Filipino wants to go with you, not to Rome, but to the peripheries, to the shanties, to the prison cells, to hospitals, to the world of politics, finance, arts, the sciences, culture, education and social communication” to bring with them “the light of Christ.” Tagle’s short remarks appeared to capture the Filipinos’ most intimate response to the visit——they wanted to be part of the Pope’s and the Universal Church’s mission to reevangelize the world. And they saw this after listening to the Pope.
Not stooping down to insult
The whole event was not without its challenges. But Francis proved more than equal to those challenges. In Malacañang, the first thing he heard from President Aquino in his “welcome address” was a wild and unprovoked attack against the Church and her supposed role in the colonization of the Philippines nearly 500 years ago. Aquino managed to avoid saying anything about the poor and the calamity victims whom the Pope had placed at the center of his visit, and profusely praised himself at the expense of two of his predecessors, then proceeded to call the Pope, with whom he had very little in common, a “kindred spirit.”
Having previously seen the Pope in action, I was afraid that after reading his prepared text, he would make a few remarks off the cuff to set his ill-mannered and ill-informed host right. But he refused to stoop down to the insult. Except for a look of amazement and wonder in his face, he refused to react.
Heritage of faith
In his speech, the Pope spoke of the Philippines as a Catholic Christian nation with nearly 500 years of life in the faith. “The Christian message has had an immense influence on Filipino culture,” he said. “I have admired the heroic strength, faith and resilience demonstrated by so many Filipinos in the face of (the Yolanda) natural disaster, and so many others.
“Today, the Philippines, together with many other countries in Asia, faces the challenge of building on solid foundations a modern society—a society respectful of authentic human values, protective of our God-given human dignity and rights, and ready to confront new and complex political and ethical questions.”
No stranger to the facts
In words that showed his familiarity with what has been happening in the country, he said: “As many voices in your nation have pointed out, it is now, more than ever, necessary that political leaders be outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment to the common good. In this way they will help preserve the rich human and natural resources with which God has blessed this country.
“Thus will they be able to marshal the moral resources needed to face the demands of the present and to pass on to coming generations a society of authentic justice, solidarity and peace.
“Essential to the attainment of these national goals is the moral imperative of ensuring social justice and respect for human dignity. The great biblical tradition enjoins on all peoples the duty to hear the voices of the poor.”
The unfinished business of the RH Law
Then without any change of tone, he spoke of the centrality of the family in the life of the nation, which, through the widely opposed Reproductive Health Law, has lately been troubled by the State’s intervention in the intimate private lives of families.
“Like all of God’s gifts, the family can also be disfigured and destroyed,” the Pope said. “It needs our support. We know how difficult it is for our democracies today to preserve and defend such basic human values as respect for the inviolable dignity of each human person, respect for the rights of conscience and religious freedom, and respect for the inalienable right to life, beginning with that of the unborn and extending to that of the elderly and infirm.
“For this reason, families and local communities must be encouraged and assisted in their efforts to transmit to our young the values and the vision which can help bring about a culture of integrity — one which honors goodness, truthfulness, fidelity and solidarity as the firm foundation and the moral glue which holds society together.”
He reinforced this message in his homily at his first Mass at the Manila Cathedral for the bishops, priests and religious.
The fight against injustice
“As the Bishops of the Philippines have rightly taught,” he said, “the Church in the Philippines is called to acknowledge and combat the causes of the deeply rooted inequality and injustice which mar the face of Filipino society, plainly contradicting the teaching of Christ. The Gospel calls individual Christians to live lives of honesty, integrity and concern for the common good. But it also calls Christian communities to create ‘circles of integrity’, networks of solidarity which can expand to embrace and transform society by their prophetic witness.”
The role of the clergy and the religious
He underlined the primacy of the clergy and the religious in the work of transforming communities. “How can we proclaim the newness and liberating power of the Cross to others, if we ourselves refuse to allow the word of God to shake our complacency, our fear of change, our petty compromise with the ways of this world, our ‘spiritual worldliness’?” he asked, quoting words from his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.
He called on the bishops, priests and religious, to “proclaim the beauty and truth of the Christian message to a society which is tempted by confusing presentations of sexuality, marriage and the family.” He reminded them that these realities “are increasingly under attack from powerful forces which threaten to disfigure God’s plan for creation and betray the very values which have inspired and shaped all that is best in your culture.”
“Filipino culture has, in fact, been shaped by the imagination of faith,” he said.
“Filipinos everywhere are known for their love of God, their fervent piety and their warm devotion to Our Lady and her rosary. This great heritage contains a powerful missionary potential. It is the way in which your people have inculturated the Gospel and continue to embrace its message.”
The new colonization
At his Encounter with Families at the Mall of Asia Arena, the Pope warned against the enormous dangers facing the family from the outside world. Where Aquino spoke of colonization with respect to the Christianization of the Filipinos 500 years ago, the Pope now spoke of colonization to speak of the powerful forces seeking to paganize and destroy the family.
“There is a colonization, an ideological colonization that we have to be careful of…that tries to destroy the family,” he said. It comes from outside, “that is why I say it’s colonization . . . As families, we have to be very wise and very strong, with fortitude, to say ‘no’ to the initiatives of colonization that could destroy the family.
While people live in dire poverty, others are caught up in materialism and lifestyles which are destructive of family life and the most basic demands of Christian morality. Those are the ideological colonizations. The family is also threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, by relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life.”
Reaffirming Humanae Vitae
Amidst recent suggestions in the world media that the Pope has an open mind about contraception and same-sex unions, his statements at the MOA made it indisputably clear that the exact opposite is true. He paid tribute to Blessed Paul VI, whom he beatified in Rome at the end of the extraordinary synod of Bishops last year as “a good pastor who warned the sheep that the wolves were coming” when he proclaimed in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, that contraception is intrinsically evil.
“He had the strength to defend openness to life,” Francis said of Blessed Paul VI. “He expressed compassion for particular cases, and he taught professors to be particularly compassionate with particular cases. But he went further. He went to the people beyond. He saw the problems it could cause families in the future, and he acted. He was courageous… And from the heavens, he blesses us today.”
Every threat to the family is a threat to society itself, the Pope said. As his sainted predecessor John Paul II so often said, “the future of humanity passes through the family. The future passes through the family.” So protect your families, he said. See in them your country’s greatest treasure and nourish them al ways by prayers and the grace of the sacraments.
The CBCP, the National Transformation Council and the next step
In four short days of simple and inspiring catechesis with the Filipino poor, Francis left more than enough to help the faithful renew their personal Christian lives and to construct a program for the transformation of Philippine society. What exactly should we see next? This is now a matter of praxis. The National Transformation Council has much to contribute to it, and at press time yesterday, Archbishop Ramon Arguelles of Lipa was supposed to make a presentation about the NTC to the CBCP General Assembly at Pius XII center in Manila. I hope and pray that they would be one in their response.