Meditations on the Pope, history and faith
Though I maintain an abiding respect for the dominant faiths, I have long ceased to retain allegiance to any particular religion, seeing in human history how abominable and murderous religions have been to the very humanity they purport to serve. But the strange and delightful sight of multitudes dancing the sensuous tango in St. Peter’s Square on Pope Francis’ birthday last Dec. 17 has prompted me to revisit my Catholic roots.
Beyond his uncommon love for the poor, there is something about the Pope that elicits fascination.
Perhaps it is that he has the intuitive heart of a man raised from humble circumstances. That, in his plebeian youth, he was once a bouncer in a Buenos Aires nightclub and that he was partial to the tango amaze me. (I grin to myself, musing that if the former nightclub bouncer Jorge Mario Bergoglio can become a pontiff, perhaps I can aspire for the elegance to dance Gardel’s enchanting “Por Una Cabeza” tango, a la Al Pacino in “Scent of a Woman.”)
These episodes, of course, occurred well before he entered the seminary. Yet they hint at the complexity of a man consecrated to live for others. A pontiff who disdains the ornaments and trappings of his office, he is tentative about the conservative Roman Curia. Quietly, however, he has encouraged initiatives that may yet ignite the transformation of an institution that today conducts itself more as a relic of the 19th century than a compass for the 21st century and beyond.
One such initiative involves the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin whose esoteric and controversial works on evolutionary and relativity theories attempt to reconcile science with religion. Pope Francis has allowed discussion of Teilhard’s theories, censored by the Vatican during his lifetime (1881-1955), among competent scholars. By doing so, the Pope signaled a new openness in the Church to ideas and theories once considered heretical.
While the Pope has reaffirmed teachings on abortion and artificial contraception, he has also subtly reshaped the Catholic view on homosexuality, emphatic that gay people should not be marginalized.
This openness may not lead to a rethinking of basic Catholic doctrines. That it invites, however, a reexamination of these doctrines in the light of a deeply conflicted humanity, is refreshing to those who bewail the diffidence of Catholic thought on core issues about human existence. For instance, on the world’s population explosion, which by 2050 (when combined Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, and Islamic followers will outnumber Christians) is predicted to rise to 9.7 billion and put untold pressures on diminishing food and natural resources, will Catholic doctrine mitigate or aggravate the impending demographic disaster?
In a more fundamental way, Pope Francis appeals to my view of what a great religious leader should be: bold in struggling against wrongdoing in the world, courageous in speaking out against the banality in his own Church, a bridge-builder between peoples of varying beliefs, and gifted with a world view that provides sense and purpose to disparate societies. Such a leader would also have a vigorous moral imagination to forge what the philosopher Rudolf Steiner called “ethically sound and practical solutions” to unique situations.
Indeed, the Church faces a plethora of revolutionary and extraordinary issues. Among these are Christianity’s relevance in a secular age, upheaval in sexual mores and orientation, and a world on the brink of climate catastrophe. Pope Francis has taken a Jesuit’s orderly approach, focusing on two vital and related themes—“the venality of power and extreme wealth and the lessons wrenched from poverty.”
Abuses of power and wealth have long tormented Philippine society and Church governance. For it was not so much the weaponry of the conquistadors as the pious oeuvre of Spanish friars that ultimately brought momentous changes to this archipelago. State and Church worked hand in glove, whetting and abetting Spain’s appetite for new sources of wealth and adherents.
As the historian Lewis Hanke noted, Spain and the Church were attempting the impossible. “On the one hand, they sought imperial dominion, prestige and revenue; on the other, the voluntary commitment of peoples culturally different from themselves to the new religion they offered or imposed.” Not surprisingly, the controversial role of mendicant orders in the Spanish conquest of the New World stirred debate in Europe and within the Church itself. So inhumanely did the friars treat Mexico’s Aztec Indians that they created a seismic backlash.
The humanist Bartolome de las Casas and, much earlier in 1511, a young Dominican named Antonio de Montesinos were outraged by the atrocities of Spanish soldiers and friars on the American continent and the outlying Caribbean islands. Las Casas championed the Indians until his death as a bishop in 1556. And Montesinos declared the friars in mortal sin for their cruelty to the natives.
To their eternal misfortune, the Indios of Filipinas did not have a friar in the mold of Las Casas or Montesinos. And so social and political ferment continued to fester throughout the oligarchic regime of the Church and the Spanish crown.
In Pope Francis, we see the inspiring humility, compassion and spirit that animated Las Casas and Montesinos. And when he arrives here, the scholar in him will appreciate Philippine narratives that are reflected powerfully in the history of his own Argentina, once also a colony of Spain.
Long after his departure from our shores, what will undoubtedly resonate among Filipinos are the words and images of a Vicar of Christ praying, with his stricken flock, in a devastated Tacloban City. By that simple and singular act, Pope Francis will make himself an indelible part of a nation’s suffering, bringing redemption as well as renewed faith and hope in our benighted realm.
Rex D. Lores ([email protected]) is a member of the Philippine Futuristics Society.
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