Welcoming the Pope of the poor to a country of the poor

More than a year ago when Pope Francis had barely warmed the papal office in Rome, his words and style of leadership signaled something new and welcome to an estimated more than one billion Catholics the world over, many of whom had become estranged from the institutional church over the decades. He made known his bias for the poor, the downtrodden and the powerless: those teeming masses struggling to exist in the fringes of mainstream elite-dominated societies — exploited, oppressed and almost forgotten.

He chose the papal name “Francis”, the first ever to do so, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi because he was especially concerned for the well-being of the poor. St. Francis, he said, has “changed history…as he brought to Christianity an idea of poverty against the luxury, pride, vanity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the time.”

Pope Francis is thus also making history by giving new life and meaning to the spirit and message of St. Francis about being an instrument of peace – (beyond or deeper than the well-known “Prayer of Peace” erroneously attributed to him) – which is to be an instrument of peace with justice.

He did not mince words when he denounced the “cult of money” under capitalism or what some recognize as the destructive, overweening role of finance capital in the global economy to the point of further widening the divide between developed and underdeveloped/backward economies and between the rich and the poor within countries.

He weighed in against the impending armed intervention of the US and other western powers together with their Arab allies in conflict-ridden Syria by presiding over a high-profile prayer for peace in Rome that was the signal fire for worldwide appeals against the bombardment of Syria. Pope Francis thus helped avert the initiation of another US-led “humanitarian intervention” in a sovereign country and a likely repeat of what had happened in Libya.

Pope Francis has been shaking up the Roman curia as well as the Catholic Church hierarchies around the world about prioritizing the poor, a simple style of living and working, eschewing corruption and unsavory activities and being more pastoral than doctrinal in relating to those who have been alienated from the Catholic Church or are not part of the flock to begin with.

But perhaps what has most endeared him to ordinary believers and drawn the attention of even non-believers are his official as well as informal pronouncements about social issues such as homosexual relations, marriage and children out of wedlock, the future of the youth, care of the sick and elderly, human trafficking, and so on. His words and demeanor convinced many that this pope is really inclusive and non-judgmental, open to other views and not doctrinaire, and that he does not insulate himself from the dirty, rough-and-tumble world out there but is reaching out to the world’s peoples. That Pope Francis speaks in a straightforward manner rather than in obscure terms is a definite plus factor giving him a deft communicator’s touch that has been adjudged as “instinctive” and “spontaneous.”

The Pope’s visit to a country like the Philippines is significant not only because most Filipinos are born and raised Catholic. But, for this pope, because the vast majority of the nation’s hundred million plus people (the 10 million diaspora of overseas Filipino workers included) are poor and oppressed — Pope Francis’ focus and primary concern.

They are neglected survivors of calamities such as Yolanda. They are landless peasants and seasonal farm workers. They are the underpaid contractual workers. They are the army of the unemployed and underemployed; the oddjobbers in major towns and cities like itinerant vendors, tricycle drivers and others existing hand-to-mouth. Even the social stratum of fixed income earners, loosely called the “middle class”, are fast slipping into penury. They are the underclass in the vast countryside, in the ubiquitous pockets of urban decay and in the sprawling slum areas derisively called “squatter colonies”.

The government is preoccupied with ensuring that security will be tight for the visiting head of the Roman Catholic Church as well as the head of the Vatican state. The Aquino administration is readying a list of convicted prisoners who will be pardoned in the spirit of “mercy and compassion” that is the theme of this year’s papal visit. (Some pundits say this is to curry favor with the international media, if not the Pontiff.) Philippine media is all agog about Pope Francis, particularly his simpatico public persona that has captured the hearts of many.

While security concerns are valid, these cannot override the main objective of the Pope’s visit to the Philippines and that is to reach out and touch the minds and hearts of the poor and oppressed by listening to their cries and giving them succor and hope.

Organizations of calamity survivors such as People Surge in the Eastern Visayas are eagerly preparing for the Pope’s brief visit to Tacloban and Palo in Leyte in order to breach the cordon sanitaire that is a given for such a V.I.P. They and other members of people’s organizations hope that the coming of the Pope will be an occasion to bring attention to long-standing grievances and demands. They hope to find a sympathetic ear in Pope Francis, and perhaps an inspiring message of solidarity and support.

But it is clear to them that they must struggle themselves to resist anti-people and anti-poor government policies and programs and in turn advance their rights and welfare.

One plea that the umbrella group People’s Committee to Welcome the Pope (People’s Welcome) will highlight is the call for the government (GPH) to release political prisoners (people imprisoned for their political beliefs) and to resume the formal peace negotiations with the revolutionary National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) in order to resolve the decades-old armed conflict and achieve a just and lasting peace.

It is not farfetched that Pope Francis may realize in his visit that there is a golden opportunity for him to use the immense influence and moral suasion of his office to help break the current impasse in the GPH-NDFP peace negotiations the way he broke a half-century impasse in diplomatic relations between the United States of America and Cuba. #

Published in Business World
12 January 2015