In word and deed
According to reports, when the former cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio visited Brazil for World Youth Day in July 2013—his first overseas trip after being elected pope and taking the name of Francis—he was met with rapt crowds of Brazilians and young people from all over the world chanting “Francesco, Francesco,” but that when he spoke to them, he urged them to chant and shout “Christ, Christ” instead.
Pope Francis had a characteristically modest response when asked about this and about how he lives with his immense popularity in a recent interview with America magazine: “I live it thanking the Lord that his people are happy… Interiorly, I try to think of my sins, my mistakes, so as not to think that I am somebody. Because I know this will last a short time, two or three years, and then to the house of the Father. And then it’s not wise to believe in this…”
Francis’ radically simple, unassuming persona was once again on edifying display during his five-day visit to South Korea. Offered the use of an upscale vehicle for his transport, he reportedly insisted on the smallest South Korean car available, in line with his earlier urging for Church officials to use “humble cars” if they needed to go around. South Koreans, an affluent race for whom luxury cars are a mark of social standing, marveled at the sight of Francis riding a tiny black Kia Soul, the car brand’s second smallest model. The traditional bulletproof “popemobile,” constructed for his predecessor Pope John Paul II after the attempt on the latter’s life in May 1981, was nowhere in sight.
This Pope wants greater contact with ordinary people, and in South Korea, as in the Vatican and in other places that have been graced by his presence, his humility and common touch remained a constant, inspiring sight. He met with the dwindling band of Korean “comfort women,” and spent time consoling the families of the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster, a tragedy involving mostly children that has shaken the country to the core. In the America interview, he recalled: “I took this ribbon [from relatives of the Sewold ferry disaster, which I am wearing] out of solidarity with them, and after half a day someone came close to me and said, ‘It is better to remove it, you should be neutral.’ But listen, one cannot be neutral about human pain. I responded in that way. That’s how I felt.”
The same affinity for human suffering and dignity under duress will doubtless mark Francis’ upcoming visit to the Philippines, in which, as early as now, he has reportedly sent word that he will not have time to meet the wealthy and the elite, and prefers to dine with poor people, especially the victims of Typhoon “Yolanda.” When he visits Tacloban City on Jan. 17, some 30 individuals from the devastated areas, such as Leyte, Cebu and Bohol, will share a meal with him.
To underscore his mission to eschew frippery during his travels, the Pope reportedly declined the invitation to visit Cebu—the first outpost of Christianity in the Philippines and in the Far East, and which will celebrate the feast of the Santo Niño on Jan. 18—because “he said he’s not coming for a fiesta,” disclosed Archbishop John Du of Palo, Leyte. “He said … the only reason he will come to the country is to be with the poor, the victims of Yolanda.”
What a letdown that will be to the traditional elite of this country who, in countless parishes and dioceses nationwide, normally get first dibs at kissing the hand of the bishop or other visiting Church dignitary. The town’s most prominent families, invariably also the wealthiest and most influential, usually serve as hermanas and hermanos mayor, sprucing up the local church, maintaining a carroza or two to be trundled out all glittering during Holy Week, organizing parish activities from bingo socials to processions—and in return getting to hobnob with the Church hierarchy.
In word and deed, Francis is making it clear that he’s having none of that exclusivist setup. With his visit to the Philippines, the infamous “Pajero bishops” and their like, for one, can learn a thing or two from this man who, less than two years into his papacy, is fast returning the Catholic Church to its authentic roots as a refuge of the poor and the weak. The tone and directive from the top is no less than a revolution from the old ways in which the Church was an active enabler in an unequal, opportunistic society. Now, the small ones have found a champion in “the people’s Pope.”
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