Gift of faith

The announcement by Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle that Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the Philippines in January has thrilled countless Filipinos. With a papal visit deemed a special blessing, it is expected that survivors of “Yolanda,” who are still reeling from the loss not only of their loved ones but also of their homes and livelihood more than eight months after the supertyphoon rearranged the Visayan landscape, would find great comfort in Francis’ presence.

Manila holds a record in the number of people that thronged the Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II at Rizal Park in January 1995, his second visit to the Philippines (the first was in February 1981). “The Filipino people are never far from my mind and heart,” the Pope momentously said upon his arrival in the country to celebrate World Youth Day. Some four million people attended the Mass that served as the event’s closing ceremony—estimated then to be the biggest crowd so far in the papacy of now St. John Paul. It was as if the Filipinos were truly a “papal people.”

If the popes are the royalty of the Catholic Church, Francis is a veritable rock star in robes, his image appearing on the cover of magazines like Time and Rolling Stone—as well as, the epitome of cool, on young people’s T-shirts. Breaking with some strong and long traditions, Francis has eschewed much of the pomp and pageantry attached to his exalted position starting from Day One, when he chose simple vestments to wear and spartan quarters to live in instead of the lavish papal apartments. When he named 19 new cardinals (including Archbishop Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato) last January, Francis counseled them to remember the dignity of simplicity and selflessness in their new posts: “While you must do so with pleasure and joy, ensure that this sentiment is far from any expression of worldliness or from any form of celebration contrary to the evangelical spirit of austerity, sobriety and poverty.”

At every opportunity, Francis has spread his message through words and actions; just the other week, he popped up at the cafeteria that services Vatican workers, queued and paid for his food, and sat down to eat with them.

The staunchly Catholic Philippines warmly welcomed the election as pope of the Jesuit Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina in March 2013. But like some pockets of the Catholic world, the Philippine Catholic Church and laity are slow to accept the changes that the Pope has brought. Only recently in Mandaue City, Cebu, a priest publicly shamed an unwed mother who had brought her child to be baptized. And yet Francis himself would baptize the seven-month-old child of unmarried parents in the Sistine Chapel. He would later tell an Italian newspaper: “Last year in Argentina I condemned the attitude of some priests who did not baptize the children of unmarried mothers. This is a sick mentality.”

And this Pope is special, one who seeks to include, not exclude; who preaches hope; who reaches out to those long relegated to the corners of society—women, homosexuals, lapsed Catholics, the impoverished, those imprisoned by sordid addictions… Even those of other

religions.

Beyond the buzz and the excitement that come with the papal visit, Filipinos can seize the opportunity to heed Francis’ message of charity, tolerance and forgiveness. More than being merely pietistic, Filipinos can prepare for the Pope’s visit through acts that hew to his spirit of openness, that shun ostentation, that seek social justice.

Cardinal Tagle has issued a reminder: “We can prepare best for the coming of the Pope by having our own spiritual renewal. Through spiritual renewal, returning to the word of God, frequenting the Eucharist, returning to God through the sacrament of reconciliation and confession… These are some of the ways we can prepare spiritually for the papal visit.

“We must prepare the nation to receive the Holy Father by setting our minds and hearts in communion with our dear Pope Francis, the messenger of peace and love and the apostle of the poor.”

Indeed, we will be deserving of this papal visit, of this gift of faith, if we will be as Francis is: merciful, compassionate, tolerant, ever mindful of the rights of others, and insistent that “money must serve, not rule.”

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