It’s been 2 weeks since Pope Francis took Manila by storm and we’re still reeling from his electrifying 5-day pastoral visit. Already, many are excitedly looking forward to his possible return to the Philippines in 2016 to participate in the International Eucharistic Congress. It is not an exaggeration to say that the treatment accorded to him by Filipinos rivals how music fanatics regard their favorite rock stars. No wonder a number of columnists and reporters have used the term rock star to describe him. The Rolling Stone Magazine actually saw this coming years back albeit in an even broader and more positive context compelling its editors to put Pope Francis on its cover – an accolade normally reserved for U2 or Coldplay.
That he is one pope who is very much at home with 21st century technology all the more endears him to Christians and non-Christians alike. He gamely poses for selfies mostly with the youth and maintains Twitter accounts in various languages. He is also a gifted “extemporator” and an obvious master of the soundbite. In the course of the 5-day television coverage, some anchors even went so far as to say that if only more priests could duplicate the pope’s gift for public speaking, attendance in Sunday masses would even go higher. To this day, without the need to consult the official publication of his homilies in Manila, I can still remember the core messages of his sermons in the 5 days he was here. I suspect I am not alone.
At the Manila Cathedral, he enjoined the priests and nuns to live simple lives and to remember to love the poor if they truly love Jesus. “Do you love me?”, was a reiteration he carefully phrased to preamble his sermon. But before he could finish the rest of the question, the star-struck clergy and nuns in attendance enthusiastically chorused thus, “Yes!” Had he asked the Filipinos who followed his first mass on giant vidiwalls and on their TV sets at home, he would have received a similar response, perhaps delivered even more boisterously.
At the MOA Arena, he enjoined the families gathered there to remember to dream to truly love and to remember the days when husbands and wives used to court each other even as he admonished all those present to be wary of the many ideological forces that threaten the family.
In Tacloban, a number of us were moved to tears with his reflections on silence, the suffering Christ and the ever steady presence of His mother Mary. Pope John Paul II’s “Be not afraid” has become even more relevant to us as a people after reflecting on Pope Francis’ message: no matter how tough our daily lives may be, no matter how grave our problems might be, we can draw strength from the fact that Christ has gone through the same and much worse. He knows how it was like. He was, nay, He is with us in silence. After bringing us back to our childhood days when we would mutter “Mama” in total and absolute dependence, we will never look at the statue of Mary, the Mother of Christ – serenely clutching the infant Jesus lest He fall to the ground – the same way again.
At UST, even as he naturally demonstrated how much he loved the youth by immersing himself in the warmth and glow of the students who adored him, we were stunned with his realization that there are questions for which there are no answers. Most of these, unfortunately, are questions that hinge on the problem of evil like the one posed by Glyzelle: why do children suffer the most and why is it that only a few could find it in their hearts to help them?
In a recent talk given by his fellow Jesuit Fr. Rudy Fernandez, it was pointed out that we Filipinos are fond of preparing grand beginnings particularly with regard to the first time we partake of the sacraments like baptism or marriage. There is nothing wrong with this, Fr Rudy averred. But just as important as grand beginnings would be what happens the day after. How do we sustain such grand beginnings? More to the point, how do we live out such grand beginnings? “Pag sinimulan mo, Rudy,” his father warned him when he first shared his ambition to become a priest, “tatapusin mo.” Fr. Rudy’s reflections come to mind in the light of the numerous challenges that came our way one after the other shortly after Pope Francis flew back to Rome.
Senate hearings on various government funds that were malversed by supposed public servants have resumed. Political manueverings in preparation for the next presidential elections are all over the place. Bombings down south prefaced the deadly “encounter” which led to the apparent “massacre” of 44 members of the PNP-SAF in Mindanao. The government has confessed that it was indeed responsible for rounding up the hundreds of street children during the papal visit. The list of what ails us as a country and as a people is almost endless one is sometimes tempted to give up on changing things for the better.
How are we to deliver on the commitments made on our behalf by Cardinal Tagle sending us off to a life-long mission grounded in mercy and compassion – the apt theme of the papal visit which essentially defines the core of our pope given his life-long love of and devotion to the poor and the marginalized?
Perhaps one route might be from the perspective of a non-believer who believes in the Rebel Jesus even as he challenges our individual and collective yes to, the question, “Do you love me?” His name is Jackson Browne and in the obscure track entitled “The Rebel Jesus” he accurately paints a picture of how we experience the twelfth month of the year.
All the streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants’ windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
As the sky darkens and freezes
Will be gathering around their hearths and tables
Giving thanks for all God’s graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus
Well they call Him by the Prince of Peace
And they call Him by the Savior
And they pray to Him upon the seas
And in every bold endeavor
As they fill His churches with their pride and gold
And their faith in Him increases
If these lyrics remind you of Christmas, it’s because they are, in fact, referring to the most wonderful time of the year. Which augurs well with practically the same exhilaration that we all experienced during the Papal visit. By all indications, the 2014 Christmas season in the Philippines practically extended itself to January 19, 2015.
And here lies the rub, as the next two stanzas of Browne’s homage to the Rebel Jesus unravel the disturbing and uncomfortable implication of Jesus’ interrogative challenge: “Do you love me, Simon Peter?”
But they’ve turned the nature that I worship in
From a temple to a robber’s den In the words of the rebel Jesus
We guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere In the business of why they are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus
Make no mistake about it, Pope Francis is not a stoic confined in an ivory tower. As we can infer from his life, before he was elected Pope, he was the answer to every devout Catholic’s prayer for a holy priest – one who would have made his namesake turned saint proud of his lifestyle, a priest who commuted to work daily with the masses, a pastor who associated freely and openly with the poor never fearing to take action with mercy and compassion. Here was a shepherd who truly loved the Lord by tending to his sheep. And in case his lifelong testimony is not loud enough, in the course of his sermons in Manila he pointed out explicitly that it is simply not enough to give alms to the poor. We are called to do something about it. Theory is best validated in practice, we learned in political theory. Or as the Benedictines would put it: “Ora et Labora.” Pray and Work. Be silent in prayer, yes. And then do something concrete to uplift the poor. It may take the form of taking direct institutional action to address the massive structural injustices that make the 1% richer and the 99% poorer. Consider, for example, what the nuns of ACAY continue to do to this day for the Filipino youth who lose their way early in life or how Dylan Wilk turned his back on his millionaire lifestyle to work full time for Gawad Kalinga. It may take the form of quietly living out the 12 little things that Atty. Alex Lacson outlines in his book about what ordinary Filipinos could do to make the Philippines a better country. Or it could even be as concrete as the daily patriotic actions detailed by Noel Cabangon in “Ako’s Isang Mabuting Pilipino.”
Alas, all of these are easier said than done consistently because they all come after grand beginnings. They have to do with the day after. More importantly, most of these examples, whether institutional or individual, imply rocking the boat, going against the tide and turning the status quo upside down long after the euphoria has died down and it’s much easier to just follow the herd. We could choose to ignore Pope Francis’ call to action or we could choose to do something about it. Either way, the challenge will not go away because the Jesus that lived with us 2,000 years ago, if you come to think about it, was really a rebel through and through – from the time He came into our world as a poor carpenter’s son in a manger to the time He grew up to mingle freely with tax collectors, prostitutes and outcasts to the time that He died on a hill as King of the Jews wearing a crown not of jewels but of thorns. By all accounts, His life was a rebellion against all known conventional expectations of a king and a god. We can choose to look away or we can choose to take action, either way, ironically, through the words and music of a heathen and a pagan, the Hound of Heaven bugs us thus –
But please forgive me if I seem
To take the tone of judgement
For I’ve no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In this life of hardship and of earthly toil
We have need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure
And I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan on the side of the Rebel Jesus