Column: The most important papal visit

Published on January 6, 2015.

The most consequential papal journey of the year will not be to Sri Lanka or even to the Philippines next week, although Pope Francis’ second visit to Asia is important indeed. It will be in September, to the new center of gravity of Catholic conservatism: the United States.

Apart from its intrinsic importance, then, the Pope’s second-longest journey outside Italy to canonize the Apostle to Sri Lanka Blessed Joseph Vaz and to condole with the victims of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” in the Philippines can also be understood as a series of way stations en route to a historic encounter in Pittsburgh. (His longest journey, longer by a few hours, was the eight-day swing to Brazil in 2013.)

I do not wish to minimize the significance to the fourth papal visit to the Philippines. I understand that the Pope wanted to visit the country as early as late 2013, or just several months after his election—after all, it hosts the largest Catholic population in the world’s most populous continent and, despite the parochialism of much religion news in the country, plays a pivotal role in Asia in the new evangelization.

Unlike the visit to Seoul (his first to Asia, in August last year) and the one to Colombo that’s coming up in a few days, there is no beatification or canonization ceremony to perform in the Philippine visit. Unlike his visit to Rio de Janeiro in July 2013 or the one to Istanbul last November, there is no World Youth Day to grace or Joint Declaration to announce in the Philippines. He is, simply, a pastor visiting his people.

The highlight of the visit may be the side trip to Tacloban and Palo, ground zero of Yolanda, where he will meet with survivors of the strongest recorded storm to make landfall. (It is also possible that the culminating activity of his visit, the public Mass in Rizal Park on Sunday, Jan. 18, may turn out to be the highlight people will remember, in the same way that the record crowd estimated at 5 million that saw Pope John Paul II playfully twirling his cane in Luneta is the first thing people remember of the 1995 visit.)

His apostolic visit to the Philippines has a theme, something not every papal trip has (for instance, the Sri Lanka leg of his second Asian trip doesn’t). “Mercy and compassion” are the true touchstones of the Francis papacy, and the theme is a robust reminder of the priorities of this pastoral pope. But there was no need for the Pope to travel thousands of miles just to sound the same message.

My point: The Philippine Church can look at the visit as a papal favor, or as a sign of Pope Francis’ special consideration for the third largest Catholic country in the world. The pastor is simply visiting with his people.

But the journey to the Philippines is also significant in terms of Church dynamics. The Philippine Church helps populate the pews of Europe, fills the sacristies of the United States, sends missionaries to parts of Asia, runs schools of higher theology at home. While public perception of the Catholic bishops as a conference suffered in the last years of the Arroyo administration, and the battle lines over the Reproductive Health Law hardened during the Aquino presidency, the life of the Church in the Philippines cannot in fact be reduced to political positions alone. There is so much more to Catholic life in the Philippines.

Here, Pope Francis has what we can call natural allies in his Francis-of-Assisi-like attempt to repair the damaged part of the Church. Two archbishops who made an impact in recent synods in Rome, for instance, are at the helm of the papal visit: In Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, he has a rising star in the world church who speaks the same pastoral language. And in the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), Archbishop Socrates Villegas, he has another pastor who is living out the same priestly simplicity.

A British Jesuit scholastic tracking ecological issues, Henry Longbottom, suggested last month that one appropriate venue for the pope to finally release his much-awaited encyclical on the environment would be during his Philippine visit. “The exact date has not been disclosed, but it could coincide with Francis’ apostolic visit to the Philippines in January, a country where the Catholic Church has been something of a trailblazer on environmental issues.”

That trailblazer reputation was sealed in Pope Francis’ own “Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium,” in that section where he rises to the defense of the environment. “There are other weak and defenceless beings who are frequently at the mercy of economic interests or indiscriminate exploitation. I am speaking of creation as a whole. We human beings are not only the beneficiaries but also the stewards of other creatures. Thanks to our bodies, God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement. Let us not leave in our wake a swath of destruction and death which will affect our own lives and those of future generations. Here I would make my own the touching and prophetic lament voiced some years ago by the bishops of the Philippines …” and then he proceeds to quote at length from a 1988 CBCP newsletter.

Wouldn’t it be something if Pope Francis decided to release his much-awaited encyclical on what we can call a preferential option for the ecological during his day trip to Tacloban and Palo?

It would be an interpretation of the Good News that won’t go down well with conservative American Catholics who disbelieve the science of climate change or champion the prosperity gospel. The encounter in Pittsburgh will be something to see.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Religion

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