THE head of the Catholic Church, the biggest Christian Church with an estimated 1.2 billion members scattered all over the world, will be arriving on Thursday Jan. 15. Pope Francis, successor of St. Peter who was appointed by Jesus Christ himself to be the shepherd of the flock, is also head of the Vatican State one of the smallest countries in the world.
The Marxists, agnostics, seculars and their ilk mock the Pope. In Yalta, Stalin sarcastically asked the allied leaders “How many divisions has the Pope?” Decades later a Polish pope would lead the democratic forces in tearing down the Iron Curtain that imprisoned the citizens of East Germany. In this country, it was the ringing appeal on television of the Archbishop of Manila following the exhortation of Pope John Paul II for the restoration of democracy in the country that brought millions of the laity to EDSA to protect the forces of the then Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile and Constabulary Chief Fidel V. Ramos that led to the EDSA revolt.
The Philippines has the third biggest number of Catholics in the world coming after Brazil and Mexico. The Vatican State’s papal nuncio in this country is traditionally head of the diplomatic corps. In recognition of the statehood of the Vatican this country sends two envoys to Italy – one to the Vatican and the other to the Republic of Italy. In this dual capacity the Pope may confine his messages to doctrinal matters when he addresses his flock and on political matters (provided that it has moral implications) when he addresses the world as a head of state.
In 1981, Pope John Paul II visited the Philippines on the occasion of the beatification of Lorenzo Ruiz. He took advantage of the occasion to discuss the social teaching of the Church and the Church’s intervention in favor of peace, justice and human rights. The Supreme Pontiff did not mince words as he lectured on the need to promote a preferential option for the poor in Negros where the contrast between rich and poor is most glaring. Before an audience of sacadas and hacenderos, he stressed the necessity to close the income gap and eliminate poverty in Sugarlandia.
Later at the Luneta grandstand before President Ferdinand Marcos, the First Lady and the officialdom, I heard the pope now St. John Paul II, lecture the dictator on the need to restore freedom and democracy. A couple of years later Marcos called for an election which did not restore democracy but led to it. Like his predecessor, Pope Francis he has seen the worst of dictatorships in Poland and Argentina and would certainly not want it repeated elsewhere.
We can expect the Pontiff not to turn a blind eye on the socio-economic conditions of the nation. At the beginning of his pontificate he has stressed the need for inclusive growth and the end of alienation and marginalization of sectors of society. A country like this where a third of the population consider themselves poor cannot escape criticism. That the pope will touch on the social doctrine of the Church is to be expected, given that the modern church stands squarely behind the principles of solidarity and the preferential option for the poor. Indeed after Vatican II succeeding popes have successfully articulated the message of Christ into a set of moral principles and spiritual orientations for the guidance of modern societies.
Today the Church is associated with the liberation of people from the poverty trap. This has been extensively discussed in a series of encyclical letters that started even before Vatican II where the popes have exhorted all men to eliminate all kinds of injustice while offering a vision of a modern world where each member of society enjoys his/her God-given rights. Indeed it was the Church and Catholic statesmen, the likes of Adenauer, De Gasperi and Schumann, that contained the advance of communism in Western Europe by offering a middle road—a social market economy that would rid capitalism and Marxist socialism of their inhumanity and imperfections and promote growth with equity.
From Pope Leo the XIII’s Rerum Novarum toward the end of the nineteenth century to the present Pope, the preaching of the social doctrine of the church continues to ring in the ears of the faithful. To be sure, Pope Francis during his visit will not comment on political issues per se nor engage himself in partisan politics. But we hope that he will talk about the evils of corruption, unbridled and freewheeling capitalism, excessive consumerism and social evils that beset our society. As head of the Catholic Church, to which some 80% of all Filipinos belong, Pope Francis has every right to lecture on the evils of corruption in and out of government, consumerism, contraception, abortion, divorce, drugs, pornography, etc. The Pope surely is not ignorant of the efforts of this administration to promote population control through the passage of the oppressive contraception-promotion law that it pushed vigorously recently. Ironically it crows about the demographic dividend that is celebrated by this country today which has insured a higher economic growth for the future.
Knowing the Pope’s concern for the poor, we expect the Supreme Pontiff will reiterate his preferential option for the poor program which is best achieved by a full employment program designed to eliminate this pesky poverty situation engendered by the institutionalized underemployment, the scarcity of work opportunities and an exclusive development paradigm favored by the politically entrenched economic elite. It would not be surprising if he also chides churchmen with lavish lifestyles.
As we wait with bated breath for the Holy Father, let us hope that we receive him with pure hearts and clean consciences.