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Commentary

Pope Francis, the gentle revolutionary

/ 12:06 AM January 23, 2015

In an inspiring variant of Julius Caesar’s famed words, “Veni, vidi, vici,” Pope Francis “came, saw, and conquered” the hearts of millions of Filipinos during his four-day visit. While the ancient Roman warrior leader got his way in the lands he marched upon with the formidable might of his elite legions, the Pope does it gently in the countries he visits, armed with his faith and message of love, mercy and compassion.

Shunning pomp and glitter, he leads by austere example, aided by a charismatic personality marked by a smile that can light up the darkest of rooms. Regardless of one’s faith, or lack of it, the Pope is a welcome presence in a world being torn apart by the destructive forces of hate, envy, exploitation and inequality.

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It would be the height of naivete to say that his visit would have an immediate impact on our country’s morals or its pervasively corrupt social order. But his message of compassion and social justice seems inspiring enough to move enough good people of all stripes and stations to walk the extra mile for causes larger than themselves. Only time will tell. But one thing is certain: In him, the messenger and the message are unmistakably one and the same. The man is both a magnetic physical and spiritual presence to whom people, regardless of status, tend to gravitate. That is his magic. To call it “rock-star” or “movie-star” quality is to diminish his special mass appeal.

What are some of the Pope’s exhortations that blow like a cool, refreshing wind through our windows?

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As a layman and observer of history, I can say this much: First, just as the biblical Jesus Christ tirelessly preached about his love and deep concern for the oppressed and poor multitude two millenniums before him, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the first Jesuit pope in history, reaches out to the wretched of the earth in their destitute neighborhoods, like those in Argentina where he lived most of his life as a priest, and in his journeys to the slums of countries he visited as a bishop, a cardinal, and finally, as pope.

Second, he does not use fiery and threatening language against anyone, not even the established order that sustains the machinery and institutions of oppression. But by pricking the conscience of the rich and raising the consciousness, pride and hopes of the poor, Pope Francis empowers both classes to change themselves from within, and consequently, the oppressive status quo. In this context, he is as much a revolutionary as the radicals who seek to transform an unjust, exploitative society. He differs from them, however, with his view that social change need not mean a bloody class war that devours its own children—although a form of war it is—but a change of heart and vision by those in positions of power. These are the insights I gathered from his homilies aired live on television and the accounts of historians and journalists who covered him.

Revolutions begin in the mind with fresh and inspiring ideas that become an animating force in some individuals who then seek like-minded people to initiate reform. In countries like the Philippines where the workings of the system favor an oligarchy composed of less than 100 or so families, it’s hard to believe that those favored classes would willingly give up their privileges or weaken their dominance of the national economic pie on the strength of a papal visit. More likely, it will be business as usual for them even before the expected platitudes of concern for social justice wear out.

The complexity and configuration of the Philippine political and socioeconomic system mean that the twin problems of poverty and oppression, the Pope’s main concerns, require the overhaul of the whole social structure. But that can only be done through the combined pressure of determined state intervention and an activist civil society on the country’s tenacious oligarchy.

Modern history offers some outstanding examples of enlightened state intervention in predominantly non-Christian societies to reform outmoded socioeconomic structures dynamically and peacefully. Shortly after World War II, under the strategic direction of the United States who wanted to contain communism, the governments of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan—the frontline nations that encircled China’s eastern coast—implemented a no-nonsense agrarian reform program that effectively dismantled centuries of feudalism and led to the growth of a prosperous and educated middle class out of the millions of poor peasants who benefited from it. Incredibly, Washington did not think that its former colony and close ally, the Philippines, merited the same policy treatment, ostensibly because it was far from the Chinese mainland. Consequently, our land reform that started in the 1950s was easily emasculated by a landlord-dominated Congress.

Singapore is another paradigm of development achieved without a bloody revolution. Lacking natural resources, that tiny city-state achieved astounding socioeconomic progress within three decades through exemplary, corruption-free leadership. Those countries (now thriving democracies) employed the driving force of authoritarian regimes to spearhead their reforms, while the Philippines, except during the failed Marcos dictatorship, labored under an elite democracy that made sweeping reforms very difficult. Our leaders unwisely put the cart before the horse. And we are still paying a stiff price for their mistakes.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. We can still do it. But it will require a determined leadership and citizenry. Most important, a leap of faith in ourselves.

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Narciso Reyes Jr. ([email protected]) is an international book author, speech writer, essayist and former diplomat.

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TAGS: change, compassion, Mercy, Papal visit, Pope Francis, revolution, social justice
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