His Holiness, Pope Francis, was welcomed warmly at Malacañan Palace on Thursday morning. It was His Holiness’ first full day in Manila. Gathered before Pope Francis, and President Benigno S. Aquino III were civil, church, and political leaders.
The Pontiff’s visit to the palace was more to fulfill his duty as Head of State of Vatican City than anything else. The Pope spoke of his visit— more Pastoral than State. More to he point the Pontiff spoke of our times. Pope Francis 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.
Thus will they be able to marshall the moral resources needed to face the demands of the present, and to pass on to coming generations a society of authentic justice, solidarity and peace.
It bids us break the bonds of injustice and oppression which give rise to glaring, and indeed scandalous, social inequalities. Reforming the social structures which perpetuate poverty and the exclusion of the poor first requires a conversion of mind and heart.
The Bishops of the Philippines have asked that this year be set aside as the “Year of the Poor.”
I hope that this prophetic summons will challenge everyone, at all levels of society, to reject every form of corruption which diverts resources from the poor, and to make concerted efforts to ensure the inclusion of every man and woman and child in the life of the community.”
Powerful reminders. Powerful words, and in keeping with the times.
The Pope and the President share common problems. The Pope was elected to reform the Church amidst scandal. He has set an example of simplicity, and humility amidst a Church whose members and leadership have seen increasingly holding on to materiality.
The President on the one hand was criticized. It was to many, an inappropriate time to point out before the Pope, the weaknesses of His brother Bishops. It was, to critics, an inappropriate time to candidly converse with a fellow Head of State how many of his own people here have acted.
To frame it simply: the President expected Church leaders to standby him. President Aquino expected that “The clergy was always at the forefront of those wanting to emulate Christ and carry the burdens for all of us. Indeed, they nourished the compassion, faith, and courage of the Filipino people. This allowed millions to come together as a single community of faith and make possible the miracle of the EDSA People Power Revolution.”
But instead of being part of the solution to the nation’ ills, the President said:
“the Church, once advocates for the poor, the marginalized, and the helpless, suddenly became silent in the face of the previous administration’s abuses, which we are 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.”
I think it struck him so profoundly. That the people he expected— largely because of his religious belief to support his campaign against corruption— that some Church leaders instead chose to be small and petty.
The President added:
This is why I was struck by what Your Holiness recently said to the Curia, when you warned them of the illnesses that not only Christians, but anyone in a position of power, is prone to, including that of thinking one’s self immortal or indispensable, and the danger of becoming sowers of discord through gossip and grumbling.
The President did not say anything that wasn’t true. Here was a president attempting to right the ship of state, and instead of support, he got opposition, and from no less than many of the Church leaders who are suppose to be pro-poor; to work towards improving the lives of the common Juan and Juana.
Is it inappropriate to let the boss of people who are suppose to be helping in reforming society that his people aren’t helping at all?
This is a President who is not only head of state, but a member of the Pope’s church. It is like any of us, having an opportunity to have a conversation with the President and telling him, his people are corrupt.
The President gave the remarks that he did because, he believes, he and the Pope (a fellow head of state) share common ground:
I believe that you are a kindred spirit, one who sees things as they are, and is unafraid of asking, “Why not?” Some of your statements might have been shocking or offensive to some peers. But Your Holiness is meant to be the instrument through which the Kingdom of God is allowed to flourish. In your example, we see the wisdom of continuing to ask, “Why not?” We see joy, a sense of authentic service, and an insistence on a true community of the faithful. We thank the Lord for other kindred spirits like Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, Father Catalino Arevalo, and Sister Agnes Guillen, who have always been voices of reason, and who are spiritual people who will always be natural allies, along with so many others. We would like to think that even more will join us in the truth, in the fullness of time.
Perhaps, the President’s words were the thoughts and words of a politician. If we were to nitpick: the President’s words weren’t exactly poetry, certainly, but that is unimportant in the scale of things. Neither reason doesn’t make what President Aquino said less true. It doesn’t make it less true that certain leaders of the Church haven’t been better statesmen themselves when they should have been setting the proper example, proper tone to begin with.
Perhaps, we should suspend our judgement, and hear. Listen. Consider.
Perhaps, as the dust settles from the Pope’s State and Pastoral visit, we all need to take a hard look into our hearts, and internalise the Pope’s message of mercy and compassion. May we find less self-interest, less sowing of discord, and more of that mercy and compassion. It is my hope as a Catholic that Church leaders set that example as well. To lead. To have moral compass. To draw from Jesus’ example. To act with Jesus’ example as guide, and not to act as men. More so now. And that to solve our nation’s ills; to help kids who are suffering; to reduce poverty: we— the people— our civil, political and Church leaders all find mercy, and compassion for the good of us all. Our people have waited long enough for peace and prosperity.
Both the Pontiff, and the President spoke of corruption. Both leaders have common ground in their drive for reform. The former in the Curia, and the latter in a poor nation. Both have strived for reform against temporal matters. The only difference perhaps, for the Pope— the stake is higher; the challenge is bigger, and harder, more difficult road as leader of several billion people, and a Church that isn’t exactly young.
The President’s speech was not inappropriate for the occasion if anyone cared to listen. He has certainly have had cause to say what he did. For far too long we have had Church leaders who haven’t been the conduit of wisdom, mercy and compassion. Perhaps, now is the time for that reform.