Forget the inn
Our report put it this way: There may not be room at the inn when Pope Francis visits Tacloban in January.
That at least won’t apply to the Pope himself. It’s not just that he will not lack for Church and government officials opening their homes to him, lavishing him with the kind of hospitality only Filipinos can give, the kind where people are willing to go into debt, di baleng mangutang, to be able to do it. It’s that the Pope himself is not looking for one. In fact, he is shying away from one, repeatedly telling Church officials he wants to stay with the poor, walk with the poor, break bread with the poor.
Completely literally: He has made it very clear that he wants to visit Tacloban for one purpose only. That is to be with the victims of “Yolanda.” It is not to hobnob with Church officials, it is certainly not to hobnob with politicians. It is not even to hobnob with the most faithful of the faithful, which is why he is skirting Cebu, which has been at pains to get him to detour there, despite its insistence on being the cradle of Christianity in this part of the world. Despite its insistence on being the home of the Santo Niño, the icon of Christianity for pretty much the country as a whole.
The lack of room at the inn applies only to everybody else, or those who want to go to Tacloban to see the Pope. According to the City Tourism Office, the 47 hotels operating in Tacloban may not be enough to take in the storm surge of people who will be coming to the city during the papal visit. Even the boarding houses and private homes may not do the trick. Tacloban has been receiving inquiries for places to stay all the way from the United States.
I’m not knocking all this. To begin with, a papal visit in this resolutely Catholic country has more impact than a visit by the American president, this Pope more than anybody else. Pope Francis is a rock star in his own right, to put it in more secular terms, people do want to see him. Quite apart from that, it’s part of our culture to turn things into a fiesta, into colorful displays of pageantry and ritual. If we can turn even revolutions into fiestas, which was what Edsa was among other things, we can certainly turn papal visits into fiestas. The pleas of the Vatican and local Church officials to keep things spare, if not spartan, notwithstanding, it won’t be very easy to put down spontaneous expressions of euphoria and devotion.
What we can put down, however, are the less than spontaneous attempts by politicians and Church officials to hijack the event for their purposes. I’m glad in this respect that Archbishop John Du of Palo has warned the rich and powerful of this country, devout or not, faithful or not, that they are not invited to lunch with the Pope when he visits Leyte. Du has that, he says, on the word of the Pope himself.
The honor and privilege are reserved for the victims of Yolanda. Pope Francis has particularly expressed a desire to be seated with one man who lost his entire family in the storm. He wants to give him whatever comfort he can, to make him see that he is not alone. It’s a moving gesture, and sets out the theme of the entire visit, which has been the theme of Pope Francis’ office thus far: The exalted shall be humbled and the humble exalted.
It’s a powerful gesture and message, and will have a tremendous impact on the way we’ve always thought about and practiced faith. Certainly, it will be one sublimely magnificent, and droll, sight—the rich and powerful of this country consigned to the inns, unable to wangle an invitation to the Pope’s repast with the wretched of the earth. That is a revolution in thought. Although if the Pope is to be believed, that’s what Christianity has always been about, we just forgot about it.
It’s certainly revolutionary from where we’ve just come, which is our more fundamentalist bishops and laymen threatening with hellfire and damnation, quite apart from excommunication, the faithful who believed in RH. Or from where bishops demanded to know what was so wrong with cheating, everybody did it anyway, let’s just abide iniquity and move on. Or from days when the pulpits preached that those who were generous in their donations to the Church were more precious in the eyes of God than, well, the victims of superstorms.
It’s certainly even more revolutionary from the days when the Church reveled in its temporal power, drawing attention to it, defining its success in terms of influence and wealth. That not very incidentally afflicts not just the Catholic Church but other Christian churches as well. The Iglesia ni Cristo, for one, has just celebrated its 100th anniversary defining the triumph of Christ in terms of its bigness, wealth and influence. Although you cannot see that suggestion in everyday life in the grandness of its churches, which look at night as you pass Commonwealth like a veritable Disneyland.
It’s enough to make you believe in Providence, or miracles, that a Pope Francis has arisen out of nowhere to remind Christians that real power lies with the meek, real wealth lies in the spirit, real exaltation lies in being humble.
I myself am looking forward to the Pope’s visit—time flies, as you know from the “ber” months being almost here again—even if I’m not looking for an inn in Tacloban to shelter in. That visit holds immense potential for renewal. In body as well as spirit: The Pope’s profound concern for the poor is also a good time for government and not just the Church to reflect on a variation of “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?” Which is: What does it profit a country if it gains growth but grovels in poverty?
Forget the inn, look for the manger. That’s the best shelter of all.