Pope Francis’s visit to the Philippines couldn’t have come at a better time. Beset with corruption scandals, social problems, hunger, poverty, and the catastrophic destruction caused by super typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, Pope Francis comes at a time when the people – particularly the poor — seek spiritual intervention to lift them from the social morass that plagues their lives.
It did not then come as a surprise that upon Pope Francis’ arrival at the Villamor Airbase, tens of thousands of Filipinos braved the rain and lined the streets for hours just to catch a glimpse of their beloved Santo Papa (Holy Father) in his Pope mobile on his way to the Apostolic Nunciature where he was billeted during his stay.
The following day, he flew to Tacloban City in Leyte – defying typhoon Amang – to meet the surviving families of the victims of Yolanda. And just like in Manila, the people of Tacloban braved the punishing rainstorm to demonstrate their love for “Papa Francisco” as he rode in his Pope mobile wearing a yellow raincoat, waving to the enthusiastic Leytenos.
On the third day, Pope Francis held Mass at the University of Santo Tomas. Before the Mass, he had an emotional encounter with former street children. Glyzelle Palomar, a 12-year-old taken in by a church charity, wept as she asked how God could allow children to descend into prostitution and drug addiction. “She is the only one who has put a question for which there is no answer and she wasn’t even able to express it in words but in tears,” the Pope told those who were at the event.
On the fourth day of his visit, Pope Francis held an afternoon Mass at the Quirino Grandstand in Luneta. The event drew a crowd of more than six million, a new world record for a Papal Mass. The devotees came from all over the country. They started arriving in the early hours of the day and waited standing in the rain for hours on end, which makes one wonder: How many more would have attended the Mass if it wasn’t raining?
Soaked in the rain, many of them had nothing on but clothing drenched wet and cold. Indeed, it was the ultimate display of their devotion to that one person whom they hope would deliver them from the clutches of social and moral decadence that is plaguing the country today.
Known for his compassion for the poor, the powerless, and the hopeless, Pope Francis belongs to the Society of Jesus — or Jesuits — a militant organization that is noted for its educational, missionary, and charitable works. Argentine-born, Pope Francis is the first Jesuit who was elevated to the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church. It is no surprise then that his militant discipline and activism have brought him to the forefront in the fight for social justice. Indeed, he has been making waves that no other pope before him had dared.
His trip to the Philippines was no exception. With the culture of corruption that pervades in government, Pope Francis saw an opportunity to impart his thoughts when he paid a courtesy call on President Benigno Aquino III in Malacañang on January 16.
In his speech before a group of high government officials and members of the Diplomatic Corps, the Pope said: “As many voices in your nation have pointed out, it is now, more than ever, necessary that political leaders be outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment to the common good. In this way they will help preserve the rich human and natural resources with which God has blessed this country.”
His tone and choice of words in his speech in Malacañang was polite compared to some of his past sermons and homilies that often include fire-and-brimstone language. In one of his daily morning Mass inside his Vatican residence, he delivered a fiery sermon against corruption where he quoted a passage from the Bible where Jesus said: “Some sinners deserve to be tied to a rock and thrown into the sea.”
In another sermon, he said: “Christians who lead ‘a double life’ by giving money to the Church while stealing from the state are sinners who deserve to be punished.” He criticized Catholics who enrich themselves from graft. “Those who take kickbacks have lost their dignity and give their children dirty bread,” he said. He likened corruption to drug addiction. “We might start with a small bribe, but it’s like a drug,” he said.
The Holy Father also described people engaged in corruption as “whitewashed tombs,” saying that “they appear beautiful from the outside, but inside they are full of dead bones and putrefaction.” “A life based on corruption is varnished putrefaction,” he said.
These sermons remind me of the Philippine lawmakers who were involved in the Pork Barrel Scam, one of the worst – if not the worst — corruption scandals in the country. It’s a well-known fact that Philippine politicians are some of the most religious people… at least in appearance. They’re very generous in supporting charitable causes. But where they get the money they donate makes one wonder if they earned it legitimately.
The low point during the Papal visit was during President Aquino’s speech following Pope Francis’ speech in Malacañang. Aquino noted that the Church had “always been at the forefront of championing the rights of all, especially those of the marginalized.” But he said that he find it hard to understand why members of the clergy — once advocates for the poor, the marginalized, and the helpless — have suddenly become silent in the face of the previous administration’s abuses, which he claimed his administration is still trying to rectify to this very day.
“In these attempts at correcting the wrongs of the past, one would think that the Church would be our natural ally. In contrast to their previous silence, some members of the clergy now seem to think that the way to be true to the faith means finding something to criticize, even to the extent that one prelate admonished me to do something about my hair, as if it were a mortal sin. Is it any wonder then, that they see the glass not as half-full, or half-empty, but almost totally empty. Judgment is rendered without an appreciation of the facts,” Aquino said.
The question is: Why did Aquino chastise the Catholic clergy in front of the Holy Father, right inside his palace? And to what end? Does he expect the Pope to punish the prelate who suggested that he do something about his hair? And why did he even mention the “abuses” under former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s administration? What has that to do with the Pope’s pastoral visit?
I think it’s time for Aquino to grow up and stop throwing tantrums in front of his guest who happens to be the spiritual leader of the two billion Catholics that inhabit the Earth.
Aquino should be thankful that the Vicar of Christ had included the Philippines in his itinerary during his presidency, the fourth such occasion in Philippine history. That should add a feather in his cap.
And at the end of the day, as we bid the Holy Father, “Arrivederci Papa Francisco,” he will be remembered for a long time as the people’s pope, the poor’s hope.