Flawed head counts | Inquirer Opinion

Flawed head counts

Come Tuesday, the first-ever Latin American pontiff will launch, in Brazil, the 14th World Youth Day. “WYDRio2013” will run until Sunday in Rio de Janeiro. Pope Francis will offer Mass and interact with youngsters from countries ranging from Slovakia to the Philippines to Indonesia against the backdrop of the “Christ the Redeemer” statue towering on Sugarloaf Mountain.

In January 1995, four million attended the WYD Mass at the Luneta offered by Pope John Paul II. He will be canonized as a saint on Dec. 8 with Blessed John XXIII. Some Filipinos itch to compare Manila’s “world record” with the 2013 WYD rites.


Six of 10 pilgrims now cascading in Copacabana environs are between 19 and 34 years old. Still some pontiffs establish a livelier bond with the youth than others. John Paul II did. Rio will be “the biggest Catholic blowout of the early 21st century.” There, Francis wants to inspire a more missionary Church. His ability to galvanize young apostles will be critical. But head counts can mislead. The Catholic population in 21 Latin American countries dwarfs that of the Philippines.

Within three months, Francis has been stamped as the “pope of the poor.” After Rio, will he emerge as the “pope of the young”? asks the hard-nosed Vatican journalist John Allen Jr. “Triumph is hardly a foregone conclusion, given multiple challenges.”


Start with the “Pink Tide.” In 14 Latin American countries, Left-leaning parties are in power. They splice-managed capitalism with varying policies on women issues, reproductive health and gay rights. Can the Church carve constructive relations with these governments? Or will ties be ruptured by disputes?

Francis clashed with Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner, especially over gay marriage. In Brazil, Dilma Rousseff was elected, despite the contention by Catholic bishops that she would legalize abortion. The Guarulhos diocese tagged Rousseff as the “candidate of death.”

Didn’t the Filipino bishops of Bacolod and Lipa clone Guarulhos in assailing those who voted for the reproductive health bill as “Team Patay”? They, too, were trashed. More important, can Filipino prelates learn from Latin America?

Rousseff last year adopted a controversial national registry of pregnancies. Prochoice groups strafed her, claiming it defines a fetus as a person. Hold it. Isn’t that precisely the issue that the Philippine Supreme Court grapples with in challenges to implementing the RH Law?

There’s the Evangelical and Pentecostal “tsunami,” meanwhile. In the late 20th century, Latin America morphed from being a Catholic region into a competitive religious marketplace. At its peak, some 8,000 Catholics bailed out daily into various Protestant movements.

Yet, Catholics, Evangelicals and Pentecostals have common interests, especially in secularism’s corrosive inroads. In Brazil, the growth of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism stalled. In contrast, the most rapidly expanding religious cohort in the country is the “nones,” i.e., Brazilians who say they have no religious affiliation at all.

“Will Francis be able to reorient ecumenical outreach toward the most consequential form of non-Catholic Christianity in the world today? [That’d] be a key measuring stick for the success of his papacy.”


“Learning a new language” is the third challenge. In Latin America, the Church can no longer speak as the quasiofficial arbiter of public morality. On a complex religious landscape, it is now one actor among many, although it counts as a substantial bloc of the population.

Filipino prelates like Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle and Archbishop Antonio Ledesma insist that “the authority of establishment must give way to the authority of witness.” That profiles Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires. He was among the pioneers in navigating this transition. He positioned his Church “as a credible social force.”

How? Not by magisterial pronouncements but in ministering to the poorest. He turned over his cardinal’s palace for use as a hospice by a religious nursing order. He took the bus and lived in a rundown apartment. Now, he faces the task of “scaling up” this approach across the continent. Rio could be his breakout performance.

Early images of Francis’ papacy have been compelling. He spurned the sprawling papal apartments and lodged in the spartan Vatican guesthouse Casa Santa Marta. He drives through St. Peter’s Square, to greet people, in an open-topped jeep instead of the bulletproof bubble.

Priests shouldn’t drive fancy cars, he said mid-July. “It hurts me when I see a priest or nun with the latest-model car. A car is necessary to do a lot of work, but, please, choose a more humble one. If you like the fancy one,  think about how many children are dying of hunger in the world.”

After his speech, Francis visited the Vatican garage to inspect his own fleet, according to The Associated Press. He arrived at Castel Gandolfo in a simple Ford Focus—a far cry from the luxury cars of his predecessor: a custom-made Renault, a BMW X5, a Mercedes. “Now here’s a Pope who practices what he preaches,” wrote Yasmin Hatz of the Huffington Post.

Example is contagious. A priest in Colombia answered the Pope’s call. He planned to sell his white Mercedes Benz E200 convertible, given to him as a gift by his four brothers. “I can ride a bicycle,” he said.

In Rio, there are the media and the message. Since mid-March, the usual stream of Vatican leaks in the Italian media has largely dried up. Francis plays his cards close to the vest in his insistence on the Church going into the streets. This Pope often veers off-script. Will he avoid blurring his own message during the biggest public outing of his young papacy? Abangan, Filipinos would say.

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TAGS: Catholic Church, Juan L. Mercado, opinion, Pope Francis, Religion, Viewpoint, World Youth Day
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