The Catholic nation of Philippines would have greeted any Holy Father as the Vicar of Christ on Earth, but they were especially overcome with joy upon the arrival of this wildly popular Pope Francis. The President of the Philippines declared the week of the Pope’s visit to be a national holiday. Business in Manila shut down for a week, and airspace was restricted. Rosemary and I watched the 24 hour coverage of the Pope’s Philippine visit from satellite television. Vice Ganda and all the other popular gay Philippine entertainers were nowhere to be seen from the ABS-CBN studios during the Papal visit. From the moment His Holiness stepped off the chartered SriLankan Airlines passenger jet onto the tarmac in Manila, every second of airtime was focused on the Pope. His kind, grandfatherly face was on the television for nearly seven straight days. Even when the Pope was retired for the evening, the television stations suspended normal programming in favor of replayed clips from the day’s festivities.
During his stay in Philippines, Francis braved a tropical storm to travel to Tacloban. The ABS-CBN news anchors gushed as they reported on the Pope’s bravery. Pilots warned His Holiness that flying in such conditions was unsafe. But the brave Pope would have none of that. The city of Tacloban was destroyed last year by one of the most powerful typhoons to ever make landfall. Nearly 7000 people were killed by Typhoon Yolanda. The people there were suffering, and Pope Francis needed to be there for them. Nearly one million people attended the outdoor mass in Tacloban. Umbrellas were not allowed for security reasons, so the crowds stood in the rain wearing cheap, plastic yellow ponchos as they prayed for their friends and family who were killed. Pope Francis, demonstrated his humility by wearing the same cheap, plastic yellow poncho. The news anchors could not get enough of this Vicar of Christ who wore a cheap, plastic yellow poncho. Francis spoke to the crowds in Spanish, “...so many of you in Tacloban have lost everything. I don't know what to say - but the Lord does… He underwent so many of the trials that you do." My in-laws watched the entire mass on satellite television. They were in tears. “This man. This is overwhelming,” sobbed Rosemary’s mother.
Pope Francis returned to Manila for more festivities. Groups of school children performed the worship song and dance routines that they had spent months practicing. A severely crippled man presented the Pope with a painting that he had struggled with as a gift. More parades and gifts were presented to His Holiness, all with cameras rolling for live satellite television. From the hundreds of street urchins who were driven off of Manila’s Roxas Avenue to make room for the Papal parade, two were selected to be cleaned up for a presentation before His Holiness. The young boy and girl, between 10 and 12 years old, each read from their prepared scripts. The adorable girl named Glyzelle Palomar broke down before she could finish reading. She cried and asked His Holiness through her sobs why God would allow children like her to suffer. She asked the most basic question anybody could ask of a god who answers desperate pleas with stone silence. “Why does God allow children to become prostitutes?” The crowd of Filipinos in attendance audibly shuffled. It took an innocent, young street girl to dare deviate from the script. After Glyzelle’s cries were translated from Tagalog into the Pope’s native Spanish, he answered this age old question with wisdom that could only come from the Vicar of Christ on Earth. Actually, he didn’t answer. Instead, he approached young Glyzelle and gave her a hug. She continued crying and hugged His Holiness back like he was the grandfather she never had. The crowds applauded and swooned with love for the Pope. Pope Francis returned to his seat and delivered an impromptu, meaningless homily before the crowd. “The heart of your … question has no reply. Only when we too can cry about the things you said can we come close to answering that question. Why do children suffer so much? Why do children suffer? When the heart is able to ask itself and weep, then we can understand something. There is a worldly compassion which is useless.” The news reporters gushed in beatific awe over the Pope’s trifling, backwash wisdom.
I do not know what disturbs me more. The adulation, dare I say the worship, of this man by millions of unquestioning, faithful Filipino Catholics was very unnerving for me. I am sure that I only got a sense of the hysteria from watching the spectacle on satellite television. If I were actually there in Manila, I am sure I would have had a much stronger feeling of disgust. I am uneasy when any single person is cheered for with excessive amounts of praise, particularly national politicians. Cheering for a smiling candidate at a national political convention is too conducive for unthinking mob behavior. A religious leader who accepts the worship from a crowd of millions makes me almost nauseous. The fact that he earns this adulation for the most trifling gestures is even more unnerving for me. What exactly has this man done to earn this praise? The Filipinos claim that his visit was dedicated to the service of the poor and suffering. So with that in mind, what did the His Holiness do to alleviate such suffering during his visit? He waved from a motor procession to adoring crowds. He attended performances and accepted gifts made in his honor. He delivered homilies and officiated mass. He scolded a few corrupt government officials as if that would clean up one of the most corrupt governments on Earth. And as far as I can tell that is about it. But Pope Francis does not have to actually do anything. He is the vicar, the very image of Christ on Earth. I think that his mere presence was the actual gift, and the deluded, superstitious faith of the Filipino Catholics temporarily gave them a sense of divine euphoria. The mobs of poor and suffering had their spirits lifted in the presence of Christ on Earth, and they returned to their routine lives just as poor and suffering as before. This man who is believed to hold the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven changed nothing for anybody.
I think any Pope that visits the Philippines will be received with the same amount of adulation and praise, as John Paul II was in 1995. What disturbs me even more about Pope Francis though is the amount of praise he gets from nominal Catholics, lay Christians and amazingly enough, even some atheists! Pope Francis is the darling of the media and a model of inspiration for pretty much everybody else that I know. My Catholic wife and in-laws are obviously in love with the man. Rick Warren, a Purpose-Driven Fundamentalist pastor with apparently no knowledge of his own church’s history or theology, has claimed the Bishop of Rome as ‘our Pope’. From the moment he was elected as the Vicar of Christ by the Papal Conclave two years ago, the media ejaculated about the humility and modesty of His Holiness. The secular reporters were somehow convinced that performing routine chores was somehow praiseworthy. Bishop Bergoglio lives in an apartment! He cooks his own lunch! He takes a public bus to St Peter’s Basilica! He is the first Latin American, Franciscan Pope! I immediately knew that the politically savvy College of Cardinals, concerned about the image of their own Catholic Church, picked the right guy for the job.
Even my own very non-Catholic mother is taken with the new Pope. She recently told me that she was impressed by the way Pope Francis is ‘shaking things up’. I asked her to clarify. She repeated the media friendly headlines from what seemed like a progressive leaning Holy Father. Pope Francis said he was not one to judge gay men. He said that he respects all religions. He said his heart was with the suffering and poor. He said that non-Catholics and even Atheists can find grace with God. But what mom was especially impressed with was a statement Pope Francis made in a short press conference held on-board his flight out of Manila. Two cherry picked quotes from the press conference made national headlines from the adoring press. “You cannot insult the faith of others,” was quote from that press conference that caught media notice. My mom, who includes Margaret Sanger in her list of heroes, was impressed with the other quotable quote: “Pope says Catholics do not have to breed like rabbits.”
Unlike the screaming headline that many considered an admirable quote from Pope Francis, the actual quote from is far less enlightened. When questioned about criticism directed at the Catholic Church’s position on birth control, Pope Francis said, “Some think that, excuse me if I use that word, that in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood!” Responsible parenthood is a euphemism for the Church sanctioned rhythm method. But that is hardly newsworthy to a media who is just dying to love their new Pope. So a satisfying quote is invented by ripping “like rabbits” out of context and weaving “Catholics do not have to breed like rabbits” out of thin air. The Pope never said such a thing, as if it were worthy of praise even if he did! The fact that any secular minded person is impressed with Papal statements like these shows just how constricted and archaic an institution the Catholic Church really is. Imagine for a moment any American Fundamentalist Hick politician saying something that Pope Francis is praised for. “Republican Senator Billy Bob Smith says that women do not have to breed like rabbits”. Pope Francis may be praised and admired for a statement like that, but poor Senator Billy Bob would be relentlessly mocked and ridiculed for stating the obvious to an educated and modern electorate. Not so with Pope Francis. Catholics, Protestants, marginally religious and even some Atheists, are so desperate for any hint of progressive teaching from Rome, that they continually give Pope Francis far more credit than he actually deserves and praise him for any scrap of rationality they can ferret out of him.
I am convinced that the secular press knows next to nothing about religion. They treat the Pope as if he were any other politician who may sway in his opinion based on public pressure. I have news for everyone. Pope Francis is a religious leader who is bound by Church Doctrine that is nearly 2000 years old. He is not going to suddenly allow homosexual marriage in the Catholic Church. He is not going to declare that non-Catholic believers or non-believers are going to attain salvation outside of the boundaries of the Catholic Church. The Pope continues to hold the traditional Franciscan view of the poor: Poverty, sickness and suffering are virtues, for in them we see the face of Jesus. The Papal office has never changed its mind on artificial contraception, and it is not about to begin now. The media can continue to cherry pick impromptu statements from Pope Francis all they like: Pope Francis is not about to change 2000 years of Church Doctrine.
The Pope carried his own handbag on boarding his departing plane from Manila. Sure enough, the reporters continued to gush that His Holiness was humble enough to carry his own handbag. Yes, he was praised for traveling like every other airline commuter. I scoffed when Rosemary told me again her admiration of the Pope’s humility. News flash: The Pope puts one pant leg on at a time. Rosemary told me that I did not understand. No other Pope would ever stoop to such a mundane level. So much for that vow of poverty I told her.
Rosemary told me that she likes Pope Francis much more than the previous Pope Benedict. She does share that common sentiment among the Social Justice Catholics that I know here in El Paso. But as far as I can tell, Francis conveys a warm, pastoral tone in contrast to his predecessor’s more tradition bound intellectualism. But the dogma has not suddenly changed and it will not change. The Catholic Church remains and will continue as one of the largest, most fraudulent and corrupt institutions on the planet. What is the difference between Pope Francis and Pope Benedict?
Image. That is the only difference. Image. The reputation of Pope Francis is a media creation. Pope Benedict could be easily caricatured as a vampire with royal, red shoes. Pope Francis looks like my grandpa. And don’t think the College of Cardinals did not know that when they elected him.
By the way, that handbag Pope Francis carried on board his departing plane? That final shot that made him look so humble to his adoring followers? I bet a paycheck it was an empty prop.