Column: #popeselfie

Published on December 23, 2014.

I have had the privilege of writing on Pope Francis for different media in preparation for next month’s pastoral visit. Writing has helped turn anticipation into active waiting—very like Advent. Like many, I am drawn to the Pope’s emphasis on mercy and compassion; but I am also magnetized by his candor, his demonstrated capacity for frank talk.

On Oct. 26, for instance, I wrote a “Daily Reflection” for INQUIRER.net, on what Pope Francis considers Christ’s “most powerful message.”

“‘First, it needs to be said that in preaching the Gospel a fitting sense of proportion has to be maintained. This would be seen in the frequency with which certain themes are brought up and in the emphasis given to them in preaching.’

“We can understand Pope Francis’ repeated emphasis on mercy as an attempt to restore a sense of proportion to Catholic discourse. In one of his very first homilies as pope, he introduces the theme in a memorable way.

“‘I think we too are the people who, on the one hand, want to listen to Jesus, but on the other hand, at times, like to find a stick to beat others with, to condemn others. And Jesus has this message for us: mercy. I think—and I say it with humility—that this is the Lord’s most powerful message: mercy.’

“In the passage on proportion in Evangelii Gaudium, he offers an example lifted from the ordinary experience of a churchgoer. ‘For example, if in the course of the liturgical year a parish priest speaks about temperance ten times but only mentions charity or justice two or three times, an imbalance results, and precisely those virtues which ought to be most present in preaching and catechesis are overlooked. The same thing happens when we speak more about law than about grace, more about the Church than about Christ, more about the Pope than about God’s word.’

“The Lord’s most powerful message demands repeated emphasis.”

It seems we hear Pope Francis very clearly because what he says appeals to many of us. But we also hear him because he speaks not only clearly but also candidly. Who has not tried at times “to find a [moral] stick to beat others with”? Who has not at times spoken more “about the Church than about Christ”?

In “Pope Frank,” the cover story of the December 2014-January 2015 double issue of Lifestyle Asia, I had the chance to write at some length about this gift for frank speech, and to offer three examples. Here is one:

“There is a reason why we use the terms ‘father’ and ‘mother’ to refer to consecrated men and women, he suggested in a famous interview with fellow Jesuit Antonio Spadaro. The religious are meant to be fruitful (or, to use his word, generative).

“‘And the church is Mother; the church is fruitful. It must be. You see, when I perceive negative behavior in ministers of the church or in consecrated men or women, the first thing that comes to mind is: Here’s an unfruitful bachelor or Here’s a spinster. They are neither fathers nor mothers, in the sense that they have not been able to give spiritual life. Instead, for example, when I read the life of the Salesian missionaries who went to Patagonia, I read a story of the fullness of life, of fruitfulness.’”

This month, Megamobile, the mobile affiliate of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, launched an e-book in partnership with Ayala Land. “#popeselfie: A Visual E-Biography of Pope Francis, Using His Own Words,” presents almost 300 photos curated by Inquirer photo editor Rem Zamora; I had the happy task of stitching together the main narrative, culled from many published interviews with Pope Francis.

The introduction explains why using the Pope’s own words is the best way to present his biography; he is as candid, as honest, with himself as with the targets of his compassionate criticism.

“[The Jesuit editor Antonio] Spadaro recounts that he began his first interview with the Pope with what must have seemed like a simple question: ‘Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?’ Pope Francis seemed startled by the question. ‘The pope continues to reflect and concentrate, as if he did not expect this question, as if he were forced to reflect further.’ He tries out one answer, and then after some time returns to it.

“‘Yes, perhaps I can say that I am a bit astute, that I can adapt to circumstances, but it is also true that I am a bit naïve. Yes, but the best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.’”

One excerpt from this e-biography of an extraordinary man whom the Lord has looked upon, which throws light both on his priorities as a pastor of the world (the pope part) and on his personal circumstances (the selfie).

“When he was 21, he came down with severe pneumonia; a part of his right lung had to be removed. He remembers a nun, Sister Dolores, who ministered to him.

“‘She said something that truly stuck with me and made me feel at peace: You are imitating Christ.

“‘Let us think of the religious sisters living in hospitals. They live on the frontier. I am alive because of one of them. When I went through my lung disease at the hospital, the doctor gave me penicillin and streptomycin in certain doses. The sister who was on duty tripled my doses because she was daringly astute; she knew what to do because she was with ill people all day. The doctor, who really was a good one, lived in his laboratory; the sister lived on the frontier and was in dialogue with it every day.’”

* * *

A shout-out to the intrepid crew behind #popeselfie: Megamobile president Anjo Mendoza, project director Joe Concepcion, operations director Brigette Tan Villarin, graphic artist Matt Reyes and developers Martin Castañeda, Joana Marie Mariano and Adrian Tejerero.

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