It all began with a video shown to me by one of my publishers. The clip was taken by a family (whom I presumed Italian, based on their excited chatter) while they eagerly and patiently waited by the side of a small road on the outskirts of some (again, presumably) small Italian village. From their manner of dress, you could tell they were simple folk.
“This must be on the way to the summer residence,” my publisher opined. Maybe so.
Among the family members was a young man laid out on a cot. It looked to me like he was, perhaps, paralyzed. Or gravely ill. A convoy of cars appeared in the distance, and the family grew even more excited. As the convoy neared, the second car suddenly pulled over. Who should alight from the car? None other than Pope Francis.
The celebrated “People’s Pope” prayed over the young man, hugged the old lady, kissed the baby, touched the rest of the family on the shoulder, the arm, the head. There were cheers and there were tears. After many more than merely a few moments, the Pope reentered his vehicle and drove off; waving as the car made its way to wherever their destination was.
That video made quite an impression upon my heart of hearts. You see, I am not at all religious; nor am I at all Catholic. But I know compassion when I see it.
Compassion, generally defined as God’s love in action, gets you to stop and put your own agenda aside, in consideration of others. This is a rare commodity, these days, in which people seem so self-absorbed and self-centered.
I was moved by what I saw; by what I felt. Little did I know that I – non-Catholic, non-religious, Goth-rocker-chick – had become a closet Pope fan, of sorts. Gasp!
This did not seem like the mere pontification I had, on numerous occasions, seen with popes past. This somehow seemed beyond that.
And so I, along with millions of others, found myself just about glued to the television for the duration of Pope Francis’ first-ever apostolic trip to the Philippines. My mother eyeballed me with suspicion; it was, after all, unlike me to sit through a religious gathering, televised or otherwise.
I was still wary of the more-than-a-bit-over-the-top preparations of the Philippine government for the pope’s arrival (closure of the country’s international airport, flights, massive rerouting of traffic, cancellation of classes and work , excessive spending, that sort of thing) But then again, I supposed that the paranoia was rooted in the fact that there had been assassination attempts on both Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, during the former’s trip to the country in 1970, and the latter’s in 1995. The over-the-top measures were reflective of the nation being twice shy, after having been bitten; these were demonstration of Asia’s Catholic bastion employing every possible ounce of prevention, to avoid that pound of cure.
The pope is by and large considered the ultimate Rockstar of the Roman Catholic fandom. Viewed as the emissary of Jesus Christ, Himself, the pope is the voice of the Roman Catholic Church and the rallying point of those who adhere to its tenets.
And – most especially since Filipinos are so easily star-struck – it came as no surprise that the nation came out to greet Pope Francis with a welcome nothing short of rapturous.
The body count was at an estimated 800,000 – 1M people strong, stretched throughout the streets of the papal motorcade, rhythmically cheering “We love You, Pope Francis! “
As also expected, social media went berserk with well-wishes, posts, prayers, greetings, and – from those on the other side of the fence – critical reactions and heckles. Pope Francis was given the moniker “Lolo Kiko” by his admirers. The hashtag #PopeTYSM (Thank You Sa Malasakit) was trending in no time.
There were those who called it mass hysteria; or euphoria brought on by consuming the “opiate of the masses.”
Pope Francis may have known what to expect, as he had already been cautioned by his Vatican aides, prior to their departure from Colombo, Sri Lanka, where the papal tour began: “You haven’t seen anything yet. Wait till you get to the Philippines,” they said.
Spokesperson to the Vatican, Fr. Federico Lombardi, also commented: “Ah, the Philippines. Of course, of course, Filipinos will welcome the Pope by the millions.”
How right they were.
Yes, the Pope is akin to a Rockstar. But THIS pope, in particular, most fits the Rockstar bill. With his outspoken, often impulsive manner and tendency to rock the Catholic boat with his seemingly progressive views, he has gained millions of groupies not only within the Catholic fan base, but beyond its confines, as well.
Others like me
As it turned out, there were others like me. Thousands upon thousands of others like me.
“I’m not Catholic, I’m not religious, but…” quickly rolled off the keypads and onto the posts of many a social media-user. They cited varied reasons for Pope Francis mania: His beaming smile; magnetic charisma; the endearing, almost boyish manner with which he conducts himself; his zeal and energy; his compassion and caring spirit; the sense of hope he imparts to people; his warmth; the spontaneity so uncharacteristic of popes, in general; the spirit of inclusion which he demonstrates…etcetera.
Even in Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist nation, the pope was greeted with warmth and great fervor. Christian and non-Christian Sri Lankans numbering in the tens of thousands came out to welcome Pope Francis on his visit to their nation, to canonize their first-ever saint.
People call it the “Pope Francis Effect;” something on which I still cannot quite put my finger. Presumably because the reasons are far too intangible, although the effects are most certainly palpable.
There are those who say, however, that the much-touted Pope Francis Effect is nothing more than a very well-orchestrated public relations ploy schemed up by Vatican spin-doctors. An article published in Salon.com on June 23, 2014 slammed Pope Francis’ progressive image as mere “white smoke and mirrors.”
“The image of Pope Francis is that he is a breath of fresh air, more progressive on social issues than his predecessor and a kinder, gentler pope. But when the facts are examined, you see that he is none of these things. There is an enormous disconnect between who the pope really is in terms of his policies and his public relations image, as crafted by the Vatican’s PR man, previously with Fox News,” said Anna March, the article’s author.
Such as the pope’s stand on the use of contraceptives, for instance. That raised both my eyebrows. In a nation as severely overpopulated and impoverished as the Philippines, the Catholic Church’s continued ban on birth control is like a bullet to the head, when what we really need is a bullet to the reproductive parts.
So, there’s that (valid) opinion, from the other side of the fence.
Words of wisdom
Nonetheless, there were nuggets of wisdom to he had from “Lolo Kiko.”
In his homily at the Rizal Park Mass: “We squander our God-given gifts by tinkering with gadgets. We squander our money on gambling and drink. We turn in on ourselves. We forget to remain focused on the things that really matter,” the pontiff said.
When asked by a 12-year-old girl, formerly a street child, as to why God allows the innocent to suffer, the pope answered that “there are some realities that you can only see through eyes that are cleansed by tears.”
“Women have much to tell us in today’s society. Sometimes we’re too macho, and we don’t leave enough room for women. Women are able to see things with different eyes than us. Women are able to ask questions that men can’t understand. … When the next pope comes, please have more women and girls among your numbers,” Pope Francis said to a predominantly student audience at the University of Santo Tomas.
In his meeting with families at the Mall of Asia Arena, the pontiff encouraged everyone to “never give up on your dreams for yourself, your family.”
And to the people gathered under the pouring rain and chilly wind in the city of Tacloban, hardest-hit by Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in 2013, a visibly moved Pope Francis said: “So many of you have lost everything. I don’t know what to say to you. But the Lord does know what to say to you. Some of you have lost part of your families. All I can do is keep silent. And I walk with you all with my silent heart. Many of you have asked the Lord, why Lord? And to each of you, to your heart, Christ responds from His heart upon the cross.”
A Glimmer of hope
So where are we Filipinos, at the end of the 5-day apostolic papal visit? Are we at a cross roads, of sorts, or back to same-old-same-old? Are these questions we even think to ask ourselves?
Indeed, there are those who think the reaction of the populace was over the top, irrational; akin to mass hysteria, of sorts. Well, maybe it was a bit of all that.
I, however, see it as a reaction of a people so burdened; and – most likely – thirsting for hope. Much as parched travelers through some arid, extreme, challenging desert would go crazy over the mere prospect – a mirage, even – of water.
Will a glimpse, an encounter, a wave, a message heard over the television or radio change anything much?
Probably not. At least, maybe not for the majority of that populace.
Will people still go back to being idiots and asses, the very Tuesday after the pope’s departure from the nation?
Will the Philippines still be the scumbag-infested, corrupt, crap-hole that it generally can be, and often is?
Perhaps. Very likely, even.
THEN AGAIN…maybe we cannot underestimate the power a glimmer of hope can bring; to survive yet another day.
And just maybe surviving another day, fueled by hope, brings us closer to being the change of which we so like to speak. Maybe people will take it to a level that goes beyond mere pontification, past the borders of sheer popemania.
At least, that’s how I’d like to see it.