There is no denying it. The Philippines has been bitten by the pope bug.
The fever began long before the moment the plane from Sri Lanka came into view on Thursday afternoon. Certainly, the Holy Father’s presence is calming, edifying. Just see him and you feel peaceful and blessed already. You feel one with the people around you.
Despite this, he’s wonderfully human, too. That scene when the pope finally emerged from the plane upon his arrival, and when the late-afternoon January wind blew off his skull cap—wasn’t that just endearing?
Kids have described him as cute, adorable. These are hardly what we would use on a pontiff, but aren’t they true?
With every activity, scheduled or unscheduled, there is no running out of good things to say about the leader of the Catholic church. He keeps standing on the pope mobile when he cold just as easily sat down and we would have understood—he is approaching 80, after all. But no, he preferred to stand most of the time so more people could see him and he could connect better with them.
He asked that the Papal visit not be about him, per se, and that we pray for him, as well. Such humility.
He made detours from his planned routes so that he could spend sometime with orphans. He was game enough to pose for selfies.
In Tacloban and Palo, during his brief visit there Saturday, he wore a yellow raincoat like everybody else, getting drenched in the rain and reaching out, nonetheless. It was the highlight of his trip, the most poignant leg of his journey.
At the ceremony at Malacañang Friday, he asked government leaders to shun any form of corruption, which diverted resources from the poor. Many secretly wondered how many of those present at the Palace that day found his words piercing—if they ever felt anything at all.
At the gathering for families, he urged the people not to lose their capacity to dream. Without this, he said, we would all lose the capacity to love.
In his trip to Leyte cut short by typhoon Amang, the pope expressed his oneness with a people that has been through so much. That wind was blowing hard and rain was bearing down on the people no doubt brought back memories of how it was like during the storm.
During lunch, 30 individuals, survivors of typhoon Yolanda and the Bohol earthquake, told him their stories. Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle said Pope Francis could only listen in silence. We can imagine—the moment was too full that no words were necessary.
Events at the University of Santo Tomas and the Luneta Grandstand on Sunday likewise reinforced that Pope Francis, indeed, was the pope of the people. Nobody had to utter the words “mercy and compassion”. They radiated from him—his presence, even his silence, were enough.
* * *
This is not to say that the pope fever was universal. There will always be those who believe that his charismatic aura is but a front.
For example, many did not like his reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris earlier this month. Pope Francis said there were limits to freedom of expression and that one cannot make fun of faith.
An article published last month at the Huffington Post enumerated the statements of the pope that seem to imply he is sexist. Foremost of this was when he described women theologians as “strawberries on the cake.” He likened Europe’s demographic decline and cultural crisis by comparing to a grandmother “who is no longer fertile and vibrant.” And a few other statements. The story was headlined “Seven Pope Francis Quotes that Make Women Wince.”
(Then again, during Sunday’s gathering at the UST, the pope seemed to notice that women were underrepresented, and so he asked: “Where are the women?”He also said that women were capable of seeing things at a different angle from what is usually seen by men.)
And despite a previous, often quoted statement—“Who am I to judge?”— referring to a gay person, and despite firing a conservative anti-gay cleric, the Pope just recently suggested —here in Manila, in fact—that gay marriages threaten to make traditional families disposable. Last year, the Vatican had to clarify the position on homosexuality because earlier reports had it that Pope Francis was leading the church in a revolutionary shift on this issue. It turned out he was not.
But it is unfair and unrealistic for people to expect that the leader of the Catholic church would reverse its long-held positions and teachings. Of course the Pope will adhere to the church’s position—he is its leader. He should be the first to uphold it. If anybody wanted to make fundamental changes to church views, then that person may as well break away and establish another religion altogether.
For now, however, the message and demeanor of this Argentinian Jesuit is enough if it helps shape us into kinder, more compassionate,more honest and more inclusive persons—whether we are Catholic or from other religions,or whether are agnostics or atheists even.
Who has not been touched by this pope in the past few days? Still, how deeply and how genuinely we have been touched will only be reflected in what we do—or do not—long after the pope has safely landed back in Rome, as we are left to return to our usual routine and confront our usual monsters.