Preparing for Francis: Do’s and don’ts for Filipinos

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What should the nation do to prepare for the January 15-19 visit of Pope Francis? Definitely not what Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos did for John Paul II’s first trip to the Philippines.

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The dictator officially lifted martial law nine months before the future saint’s October 1981 visit. But he retained many authoritarian powers, while effectively exercising lawmaking powers through a subservient legislature and enjoying pro-government coverage from a mostly controlled or co-opted mainstream media. (Sounds familiar?)

For her part, then-First Lady and Metro Manila Governor Imelda Marcos built a 40,000-seat cathedral with a 48-foot Santo Niño statue. The mammoth church in Rizal province reportedly cost $100 million at the P3.70/$1 exchange rate of the time.

Then-Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin wrote Mrs. Marcos saying, as The New York Times reported, that “he could not give his blessing to so magnificent a house of God while poverty and slum shanties were the lot of so many people in her purview.” Neither did the Polish Pontiff, who also declined to stay at the $10-million bayside Coconut Palace which Imelda built for him.

Rather than a tour of glittering edifices, Cardinal Sin drew up an itinerary of poverty and charity for John Paul II, then just three years into his nearly three-decade papacy. Again quoting The New York Times, local media being muzzled or controlled: “He [John Paul II] will visit the urban poor in a Manila slum, see exploited sugar plantation workers in Bacolod, meet with Moslems in Mindanao, where an independence movement has waged intermittent insurrection, and celebrate Mass for peasants in Legaspi and ethnic minorities in Baguio.”

Having seen the widespread poverty of Filipinos up close and regaled no doubt with tales of Marcos-era corruption and extravagance, St. John Paul delivered a diplomatic but pointed public criticism of the regime when its rulers received him in Malacañang.

Despite President Marcos’s outwardly contrite response to the papal admonition, his rule’s abuses continued. Less than two years later, soldiers assassinated opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. on his return from US exile. After another two and a half years in February 1986, the dictatorship fell, and Aquino’s widow Corazon became the republic’s first democratic president in a generation.

What not to do for the Pope

So how should Filipinos prepare for Francis over the coming five and a half months? Certainly not by gold-plating his accommodations, transportation, and event venues. Not for the Pope who declined the red Prada shoes, Mercedes Benz limo, gilded cross and vestments, and plush, immense Papal Apartments enjoyed by his predecessors. Nor would the Vicar of Christ who washed the feet of detainees, including two believers in Islam, care to let Manila’s glitterati cut into his time with the deprived and despondent.

So let the high and mighty of the country please not put Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle and Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines President Archbishop Socrates Villegas in the uncomfortable position of having to refuse persistent requests for face time with the visitor from the Vatican.

Or worse: offering hefty donations for Church charities with one attached string leading to the white robes of Peter’s successor. The Sicilian Mafia had long used the donation route to papal photo-ops. Look where it got them with the present Vatican occupant: virtual excommunication for their lawless, godless ways.

Four offerings for Francis

Rather than brandishing accoutrements of wealth and power, Filipinos should fete Francis and the Lord Jesus he brings with a feast of prayer, justice, mercy and peace. Instead of hiding shanties behind boards, the devout rich should work with Caritas and Gawad Kalinga to dignify and uplift slum families. Captains of industry might review their payscales and policies for any aspects deemed unjust and un-Christian in Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.

Besides justice and charity for the poor, the Holy Father has consistently and vigorously called for peace wherever violence and conflict rage. He prays for and would applaud further progress in Mindanao peace efforts. Not the kind that would set the stage for future fractiousness by undermining the Constitution yet again after the wanton and unrepentant violations of the Disbursement Acceleration Program.

Rather, with respect for the Republic as well as ample regard for the aspirations and welfare of Muslim, lumad and other indigenous Filipinos, let negotiators and legislators work on a proper Bangsamoro Basic Law which will pass muster not just in Congress, but also in court, with no artificial deadline or Nobel Prize ambitions rushing the process into illegal shortcuts.

A real and workable peace deal would be a great gift for both the Pope, the people, and all faiths seeking peace in Mindanao.

Another source of social discord these days is the gargantuan anomalies in public spending. From President Benigno Aquino 3rd down to the humblest radio listener and tabloid reader, there is division over DAP and its elder sister in budgetary irregularity and unconstitutionality, the Priority Development Assistance Fund.

Let’s hope and pray that Francis doesn’t open the daily papers during his visit with blaring headlines about politicians, activists, and other citizens trading accusations and threats, or worse, engaged in actual battles on the street. Instead, the nation will hopefully find room in our collective hearts, minds and discourse for two crucial building blocks of peace.

First, respect for the law and its institutions. Only by accepting the rulings of constitutionally empowered authorities can the differences inherent in any society be settled peaceably. Let us argue our cases with conviction and volume, then let the adjudicating entity decide, and accept its verdict, whether favorable or not. If we demand that of China on the high seas, we must do the same in our land.

And second, let us not give the poor and downtrodden reason to hate and fume over egregious acts of corruption and abuse. The mind-boggling and unprecedented amounts of public funds misappropriated by the government feed discord and despair among our people, especially the destitute. This unconscionable provocation of grassroots anger by the powers that be must stop, and contrition and restitution begun.

Anything less would undermine the truth, justice, mercy, peace, and sanctity that Pope Francis wants to see when he visits the Philippines.

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