It would be very difficult to do a column this week without a reference to the Pope’s visit. So I’m not going to try!
The Catholic Church has a checkered history and there have been quite some comments on social media as well as the real media highlighting negative episodes; from the Inquisition, to colonization, sheltering Nazi war criminals and through to more recent issues of priests and sexual goings-on of one sort or another. But to get into that sort of thing immediately on the heels of a Pope’s visit to the Philippines in 20 years would be churlish in the extreme, albeit quite a few commentators are succumbing to the temptation to highlighting things that the Catholic Church may now not welcome a spotlight on.
I thought that the visit was a great thing, particularly for the millions of God-fearing, church-going Filipinos. Such widespread joy at the presence of the Pope amongst them was so heartening to see, and there have been lots of wholesome photos and endless positive comment. Most heartening of all was that the visit managed (almost) to totally obliterate the awfulness of Philippine politics and its endless presence on the front pages. Instead of hogging the news with accusations and counter accusations of corruption and other evil deeds, they were relegated, at least for four or five days, to nothingness and in its place we had put in front of us compassion, hope, care and goodness—things that don’t normally get too much air time in this neck of the woods! It’s all been like a very welcome breath of fresh air—pity it only happens once every 20 years or so and only for a few days at that.
The optimists amongst the 100 million will think that the visit will make a difference to how things are. That it will somehow have the effect of reducing poverty, addressing social inequalities and mitigating many of the other inhumanities that are “situation normal” for countries at the stage of development of the Philippines. But sad to say, I am sure that following the departure of Pope Francis, the Philippines will just revert to being the same place it was before the visit. Regardless that he is the head of the Catholic Church and that the Philippines is an 80- or 85-percent Catholic country, it is not the business of the Pope to meddle in the affairs of other sovereign states who, for their part, can either take or ignore his advice and example at their whim.
One thing, to my mind at least, that can serve as a “take away” from the visit is the galvanizing power of such a charismatic figure supported by an avalanche of positive publicity on the masses. He behaved in a statesmanlike way and he demonstrated compassion as well as a very welcome ability to do some straight talking. Pope Francis is from Argentina and South America seems to be producing a few high-profile figures who express views often against the accepted way in which things are, not least President Mujica of Uruguay and ex-President Lula of Brazil. Eva Peron, the Spiritual Leader of the Nation (of Argentina), was another charismatic Argentinian who did good things and who was in general greatly revered by her people; she also famously challenged convention, not least in her advocacy for women’s rights and on behalf of the poor and underprivileged. She had a platform, she was the wife of the President, but Pope Francis has a much bigger platform by virtue of his position.
Charismatic leaders who hold and voice opinions, who are “outspoken” in support of what is generally held to be right, are in short supply in these days where neo liberal wooliness is all the fashion. Pope Francis fortunately declined the gift of an outrageously tactless political painting, he disagrees with gay marriage and he disagrees with contraception. Why should he not, despite the fact that such views are counter to populist opinion. In Europe Christianity, belief and church-going are becoming passé; it is unfashionable to believe in God, to pronounce oneself an atheist is to be “cool.” In the Philippines there is still strong belief, but to give up faith and the hope it sustains here is to surrender in so many cases to a very dismal reality. Pope Francis looks to me like just the sort of man who could put the Philippines on a morally right track.
The government, through its over-the-top and inconvenient security measures (including cutting off mobile phone services), managed to avoid any misfortune occurring to His Holiness and no doubt great sighs of relief have been made in respect of that, for the international reputation of the Philippines could not have afforded a PR disaster brought about by any catastrophic event during the visit.
Of the past 22 days available for work in Metro Manila, 12 have been official holidays. All economic activity but for consumerism has been shut down and now the nation has to get back to doing such work as there is. A certain lethargy sets in over the long and disrupted period from mid-December to mid-January, but let’s hope that for a short time at least, the spirit of the Papal visit, the compassion shown and broadcast so widely and the hope for a better future generated, remains with us and manages to keep the unacceptable face of Philippine politics and these tiresome accusations out of the picture at least for a while. Pope Francis surely appeared to be for five days the spiritual leader of the nation. It’s a pity he couldn’t have stayed for longer.
Mike can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org