I’m still thinking about what Pope Francis said the other day, about his being pained to see Catholic clergy driving flashy cars and his bidding them to use more modest ones. Seemingly a minor thing, it has not very minor implications.
He made the comment in an informal talk with seminarians. Catholics should “not be afraid of renewing some structures,” he said. “In Christian life, even in the life of the Church, there are ancient structures, transient structures: It is necessary to renew them!” Priests and nuns, he said, “should keep freshness and joy in their lives—there is no sadness in holiness.”
That’s when he got to the flashy cars. He wasn’t talking about superficial joy, he said, the kind that comes from getting the latest gadgets. “It hurts me when I see a priest or a nun with the latest-model car. You can’t do this. A car is necessary to do a lot of work, but please, choose a more humble one. If you like the fancy one, just think about how many children are dying of hunger in the world.”
It’s good advice. No, it’s brilliant advice.
At the very least, it’s brilliant advice for the Catholic Church, not least for the Philippine Catholic Church. In fact, it’s brilliant advice not just for the Catholic Church but for the other Christian churches, including the various sects that have sprouted in this country faster than mushrooms in the dark. Local Christian churches in particular validate themselves by displays of wealth and power, which often take, quite apart from displays of political clout, particularly during elections, the very physical one of grand, or grandiose, edifices. The Catholic Church has its cathedrals or basilicas with all their pomp and pompousness, the Iglesia ni Cristo has its splendorous spires, often strung out near each other (look at the ones on Commonwealth), that glow in the dark like Disneyland. Meant to extol the glory of God, they only succeed in extolling, particularly for the mesmerized or resentful poor, the glory of their officials.
The irony of it you see during Christmas when the birth of Christ is celebrated exuberantly and extravagantly in this country, except in Bangsamoro, forgetting that Christ was born in conditions that make “humble” sound commodious.
The one Mass I found deeply moving was a Misa de Gallo in Real, Quezon, ages ago during the pit of martial law. Bishop Julio Labayen had built a “Church of the Poor” there, shown quite literally in this particular place by a makeshift place of worship with an earthen floor to which the community had trooped. It was still dark, the air was nippy with breezes blowing from the sea, and the kids still had sleep in their eyes. But the folk had warmth in their hearts.
The Mass was in Tagalog, the priest took a morsel of rice and a sip of lambanog in lieu of bread and wine, and when he spoke of fishes the folk understood, being fishers themselves who depended on the sea for their life. The birthday celebrator was a Christ they knew, a fisher like one of them, the son of a carpenter like some of them, a poor person like all of them. He might have been sitting on one of the benches, talking to them, laughing with them. This was faith in its barest, simplest, crudest expressions. This was faith in its fullest, richest, deepest manifestations. Pope Francis had a point when he spoke about joy not being found in the lap of luxury.
At the very most, it’s brilliant advice for everyone, Christian or not, Catholic or not, believer or not. Pope Francis isn’t just warning against ostentation, he is warning against a set of values and attitudes, a particular mindset, or a way of life, that is making the world today more and more unlivable.
Chief of them consumerism. It’s worse today than yesterday. A failing global economy isn’t making people want less, it’s making people want more, with governments themselves urging consumers to buy more to bail out sinking economies. Of course the plethora of goods spawned by the digital revolution is epic enticement of itself. At no time has the Rolling Stones’ song, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” been more apt than today. You can’t do without the latest cell phone. You can’t do without the latest tablet. You can’t do without the latest HDTV. And you can’t get no satisfaction.
The only time I saw a check to this on a large scale in this country was a lifetime ago during the halcyon days of activism. The change in values and attitudes, mindset and way of life in the campuses in particular was sweeping. Overnight, the culture in schools turned from cars and status symbols to rally and revolution—not just in the “university belt” but in the elite schools. Overnight, burgis was out and masa was in. Overnight, pursuing a career was selfish, serving the people was heroic. Overnight, wanting more and more possessions was laughable, making more and more sacrifices was admirable. Overnight, luxury sucked, many children were dying of hunger in the country. Overnight, simplicity commended itself, there was joy to be found in it.
You wonder when a phenomenon like that will strike again.
Who knows? Maybe people like Pope Francis, Chito Tagle, Tony Meloto, who have walked with the poor, who have talked with the poor, who have devoted their lives to trying to make the poor less poor—and the rich less poor in spirit—can help kick it in. It is certainly no small irony that Pope Francis has commended several people for sainthood, a chief criterion for which being that one has performed a miracle. I don’t know that Pope Francis himself will eventually qualify as one, but he has opened the eyes of people, faithful and faithless alike, to a lot of things that have always been right before them.
That is no mean miracle.