The good book tells the story of an entrance that was meaningful in its simplicity. Jesus Christ entered Jerusalem on a humble donkey with palm leaves waving in welcome, not as a conquering king but as a servant ready to embrace suffering for humankind’s redemption.
Pope Francis took a leaf from this simplicity when he officially took on his fateful post, putting into words his well-known spartan lifestyle and advocacy for the impoverished in his native Argentina. In his inauguration Mass at St. Peter’s Square, Francis dwelled on the importance of helping the less privileged: “respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live … protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about.” The Pope had, after all, chosen to name himself after St. Francis of Assisi, who turned away from a life of wealth to carry out a ministry. Explaining his choice to reporters, he described Francis of Assisi as “the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man.” He later said he would like “a poor Church, and for the poor.” (With his past behind him, he can perhaps now wholeheartedly support activist priests who fight dictatorships and stake their lot with the impoverished.)
How can Francis’ words not resonate within the Catholic Church in the Philippines? Already, retired Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz has called for lifestyle checks on bishops, acknowledging some of the local clergy’s opulent ways (think of prelates’ palaces, retirement mansions and luxury vehicles, particularly disturbing in a country where the poverty level remains high). “Frankly, I myself was affected by [the Pope’s] simplicity. I think there are things I don’t need which I should give up. I have renounced them,” Cruz said, adding that Francis’ call for a “Church of the poor” should lead the Philippine Church to look earnestly into itself. The bishops should be open to a lifestyle check “if they have nothing to hide,” Cruz said.
Fr. Marlon Lacal, executive secretary of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines said that the Pope’s no-frills lifestyle “is a good example for the Church to go back to the basics and live the simplicity of Christ.” Lacal expressed happiness that the Pope took the name of Francis of Assisi. “We should really live our promise of poverty,” Lacal said, adding: “That means you don’t accumulate wealth for yourself and don’t live in luxury, like changing cars again and again. That is scandalous.” For Filipinos collectively carrying the cross of poverty and injustice, Church officials who live simple lives can serve as inspired examples. The missionaries—men and women, Filipino or foreign—who live among the indigenous peoples in far-flung communities nationwide come to mind. In 2003 when he was to be installed as the Archbishop of Manila, Gaudencio Rosales, now a cardinal, was reported as refusing ostentatious and oversized quarters. All he wanted were quarters suitable for him and his beloved dog, a German Shepherd named Ever. And there are others.
But there are also many others for whom meeting the Pope’s challenge means facing up to their failings. The Church would be wise to respond to activist priest Robert Reyes’ call for it to address scandals squarely and not sweep them under the rug. Reyes was speaking in particular about the “Team Tatay” text message naming priests belonging to the Diocese of Bacolod who had fathered children in clear violation of their vow of celibacy. “Are they collateral damage?” Reyes asked in reference to the priests’ children who were suffering the results of the public disclosure. “No, they are persons equally affected by this ‘black and white’ thing,” he said, referring to the move of the Bacolod bishop to put up “Team Patay/Team Buhay” tarpaulins that campaign against the senatorial candidates who voted for the Reproductive Health Law.
The beginning of the commemoration of Holy Week serves as the perfect time for Church leaders to come to terms with the difficult sacrifices demanded by their nature as servants, not kings, of the faithful. On the road to redemption, they should take to heart Francis’ motto: “Miserando atque eligendo” (Lowly, but chosen). How lofty its message, and how heavy it weighs on mortal shoulders.