Pope Francis: reform and conversion
“Reality is superior to a paper of ideas.”
This, in brief, captures the corpus of Pope Francis’ messages in his four-day pastoral journey in the Philippines dramatized by encounters with overseas Filipino workers’ families, youth, street children, “Yolanda” survivors, and religious men and women. He said this not once but twice in his dialogue with thousands of youth at the University of Santo Tomas after listening to a former street child’s testimony of the poverty, abandonment, and abuse endured by street children here. Consumed by her own narrative, 12-year-old Glyzelle Iris Palomar broke down in tears, unable to finish her testimony after asking the Pope, “Why does God allow this to happen even if the children are not at fault?”
Humbled by this outpouring, the Pope confessed that no words can measure up to the tears that spoke volumes of truth—of young lives wasted by poverty, injustice and oppression. But in resounding words that may have been told as well to the rest of humanity, he summoned the youth to face reality (to think), to feel how to be poor (with a heart), and to act in their service.
From a vantage point, Pope Francis was bridging perceptions of reality that call for a collective response by the faithful to collective injustice. His thoughts sprang from a discernment of his native Argentina’s poverty, patronage politics, and history of authoritarian rule no different from the Philippines’, and a priestly vocation where he immersed himself among ordinary folk.
As pope, he denounced the capitalism that only widened economic disparities and a materialist culture that scandalized social structures. He has been attacked by ultraconservatives as well as rightist fundamentalists in the United States as a closet Marxist, an allegation which he denies: “You don’t need to be one in order to be true to the Gospel.”
In the Philippines, 2015 has been declared the “Year of the Poor,” and in six years the 500th anniversary of the “Christianization” of Asia’s only predominantly Catholic country will be celebrated. The Pope called on the Catholic clergy to prepare for this celebration with a “solid foundation.”
The “faith and resilience” of the survivors of Yolanda—the crux of his visit—may have awed him, but the crisis that now grips the Catholic Church may as well be his deep concern. Recent surveys show many Catholics leaving the institution, with church attendance falling from 61 percent in 1991 to only 37 percent in 2013. The majority of Filipinos supported the Reproductive Health Law against the Catholic hierarchy’s strong opposition.
The drop in the Church’s influence in the Philippines may be explained by an institutional failure to adjust to the numbing social realities graphically illustrated by what the Pope calls “scandalous social inequalities,” unbridled corruption, labor commodification resulting in broken families, and continuing rights violations. For so long, the Church leadership has been criticized for its “critical collaboration” with the early Marcos dictatorship and for the ostracism of priests and nuns radicalized not only by repression but also by extreme social conditions that brought their social advocacy to the workers, urban poor and peasants in guerrilla zones. The extrajudicial killing of activists—many of them priests, nuns and religious workers—is often met with deafening silence from the Church, with some exceptions. Many have also been shamed by the profligacy of some priests despite “vows of poverty” and by scams involving some Church officials, their affinity with the rich and powerful, instead of the poor they vowed to serve, exposed.
The “solid foundation” that the Pope has asked of the Church in the Philippines will thus remain an “idea” unless the institution undergoes a deep soul-searching and commits to bring itself to the poor and to live by the values it preaches.
Rather than just charitable “help” or a superficial show of “mercy and compassion,” the call asks religious men and women to go with the poor’s struggle to transform society and its brazen inequality into one that will allow them to unleash their great potentials for social transformation. “Reforming the social structures that perpetuate poverty and the exclusion of the poor first requires a conversion of mind and heart,” the Pope said. For the Church to make the poor the core of its mission, it should first listen to and learn from them.
This is a challenge that, in many respects, would bring unease to the politicians the Pope met in Malacañang, where he talked against corruption and asked them to “be outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment to the common good.” In the very hour that the Pope called for “inclusive policies,” President Aquino’s security forces threatened to disperse contingents of urban poor, OFWs and other sectors who were marching peacefully to send a message to the Pope.
At the last minute, as the Pope was about to board his plane back to Rome, Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman tried to interpret the papal message her way: well-wishers from the street children who are supposed beneficiaries of her conditional cash transfer dole program. Obviously, she got the Pope’s message all wrong.
While marveling at the massive show of affection for the Pope and at how many people saw a “renewal of faith,” one should not lose sight of what Church communicators said: “Don’t just look at the Pope, listen to what he says.”
And what he said was not even uttered in words: As a pastor, he lives by example.
Bobby M. Tuazon (email@example.com) is policy director of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance and a former head of the University of the Philippines Manila’s political science program.
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