I’m a fan.
In but four months, Pope Francis has given more relevance to Christianity than his predecessors have done in 40 years. At least he has given Christianity back its spirit. The Christ of the Bible was one who walked with fishermen and at least one well-known prostitute, spoke with beggars and lepers, and preached to rabble and rabbi. That’s what Pope Francis has been doing these past months, sans the company of a well-known prostitute.
He ended his visit to Brazil last week by going down to the slums of Varhinha, known as Rio’s Gaza Strip for its scale of criminality and violence. He told the horde huddled there in the rain and cold: “No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world. No amount of peace-building will be able to last, nor will harmony and happiness be attained in a society that ignores, pushes to the margins or excludes a part of itself.”
Sometime later, in a chance encounter with the Argentine youth who had gone there to attend a conference, he exclaimed: “I want to tell you something. What is it that I expect as a consequence of World Youth Day? I want a mess. We knew that in Rio there would be great disorder, but I want trouble in the dioceses! I want to see the Church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures. [We] need to get out!”
The first thing I thought of when I read this was not about our own bishops. That was only second. But of course you cannot escape that thought, too, given the contrast between their lifestyle and the Pope’s, between their evangelical stance and the Pope’s, between their thinking and the Pope’s.
In the Pope, you have someone who is perfectly at home in the dingy alleyways, finding in their inhabitants not a threat but a possibility, not a faceless mob to harangue but real people to listen to. In the Catholics Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines currently led by Socrates Villegas, you have people who are perfectly at home only at the pulpits, weeping for the nonexistent victims of contraception while the existent born flit by outside the churches selling sampaguita, selling basahan, selling themselves.
But the first thing I did think of was P-Noy’s State of the Nation Address. At the end of that Sona, he hinted at bequeathing a legacy to the nation, one that would survive his departure. One that by the power of momentum, by the force of inertia, would persist after he was gone. Well, to make that kind of dent, to leave that kind of mark, you need to have a vision. One that goes beyond fighting corruption, however that is heroic enough in itself.
Pope Francis’ vision is there for the taking: Care desperately for the poor, and bring the youth to “make trouble” for the untroubled.
Growth means nothing if it doesn’t make the poor less poor. Of course P-Noy also talked about not reposing his faith in “trickle-down effects” but directly intervening to effect “inclusive growth.” But the Conditional Cash Transfer program alone won’t do the trick. It is neither comprehensive nor sustainable, as studies have shown.
It owes its inspiration to an experiment Lula da Silva undertook in Brazil during his two terms which proved immensely successful, reducing poverty by a third. But Lula’s CCT had several things going for it. It was just one of many antipoverty projects; it was an enterprise that drew in civil society and labor and peasant groups, not just a bunch of government officials playing God; and it didn’t lie in the hands of a partisan group like the Department of Social Welfare and Development, and therefore the Liberal Party, determined to produce a next president. Fighting poverty wasn’t just an afterthought in Lula’s government, it was its overriding preoccupation.
That’s what makes for lasting legacies. True enough, no amount of peace-building will keep, no amount of nation-building will stand, in a society that excludes part of itself. But to be able to uplift the poor, to be able to care for the poor, you must first see them. That is something our officials, quite apart from our bishops, have yet to do.
Just as well, during his Sona, P-Noy spoke of a partnership with the people, a partnership that would see his initiatives through. I’m not so sure of this not just because in a very person-oriented country like ours, the quality of the next president will matter greatly, if not decisively, in whether we will preserve today’s gains or not. It’s also because that partnership is at best tenuous and at worst nonexistent.
The relationship is largely one-way. That P-Noy is trying to do his damnedest best for his countrymen is patent, that his countrymen are doing their damnedest best for him is not. Curiously, though P-Noy won on the strength of People Power, or “volunteer power,” and though he has the power to unlock that power, he hasn’t. His government’s mantra these last three years has been “Ask not what the people can do for their government, ask what government can do for its people.” While commendable, particularly coming after a regime dedicated to screwing the people, it is not enough.
What’s needed is a real partnership, which is the people themselves, as in Brazil, taking part in their own governance, in their own uplift. What’s needed is a new activism, the kind a generation had long ago, which proposed to change the world, the kind today’s generation can have, if the Pope is to be believed, and heeded. Government alone can’t do it, whether “it” is stopping corruption or stopping poverty. It needs the help of the people. Who better than the youth? Who better than those most abundantly possessed of restlessness and idealism and dreams? Who better than those best qualified to trouble the world?
Who better than those who can mess up iniquity?