Now for the hard part

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - January 19, 2015 - 12:00am

Now that the photos and video have been taken and millions of Filipinos have been touched by the presence of Pope Francis, will his message find a place in the hearts of the faithful?

Among the earliest messages was to focus on Christ rather than his vicar the pope. A personality cult can distract from God’s word; Francis wants the message to be more important than the medium or the messenger.

Most of the streamers bearing the pope’s image were taken down. But there has been no stopping the faithful from greeting Pope Francis as if he is divinity made flesh, sent to mingle with mortals on Earth. I know someone who took a bottle of water half-finished by the pontiff and drank what was left, as if it was holy water.

This Catholic society is steeped in a culture where imagery is an intrinsic part of religious devotion. The Pinoy brand of religious worship has been criticized as superficial, a mishmash of animism, superstition and Church dogma. A Hollywood movie depicts a Catholic cop going to confession after every kill; his confessor got mad after the number exceeded 40, even if the cop argued that the fatalities were all bad guys. The priest said the cop felt no remorse and had no intention of stopping his commission of sin. That cop reminded me of certain Pinoy devotees.

Pinoy faith is strong but it needs a face, and never mind that the imagery is sure to be inaccurate. Who really knows what the Virgin Mary and all the saints looked like, much less Jesus Christ? They are all depicted with Caucasian features, including the Holy Family, except for the Black Nazarene. Such depictions are disputed by certain quarters in the Middle East where, as the Bible tells us, Jesus was born. Yet their statues are venerated all over the Philippines; medals in their images are used as charms to attract blessings and ward off evil.

Imagery, for the Pinoy faithful, also helps reinforce the belief that people are never alone, that there is always someone who walks with each person in the darkest moments. This also underpins the belief in angels.

The images help give shape to hope. And the pope is the human embodiment of all those images that give hope. Or at least that is this lost sheep’s interpretation of the impressively passionate reception Filipinos have accorded Pope Francis.

You have to hand it to devout Pinoys. Yesterday’s rain spawned by Storm Amang was no Ondoy-type deluge, but the rain was still quite heavy and continuous. It seemed to pick the period of the mass to do its worst, as if testing the devotion of the people.

Not surprisingly, the faithful stayed put, as the pilgrims did in storm-swept Tacloban. Many carried images of the Child Jesus, yesterday also being the feast of the Sto. Niño in the city of Manila.

“You are our raincoat in the rain,” Archbishop Socrates Villegas told Pope Francis yesterday near the end of the mass at the Quirino Grandstand, summing up the crowd sentiment. “Holy Father, we love you.”

*      *      *

The pontiff can only hope that his message to his flock won’t get lost in translation.

Let’s recap the principal messages of the Vicar of Christ in the past days:

Corruption diverts resources from the poor and the faithful must reject it in all its forms.

Social structures perpetuate poverty, ignorance and corruption; the pope wants just, inclusive policies that promote justice, integrity and peace.

Each child is a gift to be welcomed. The family must be protected from insidious threats.

People focus on ephemeral, superficial pleasures, hiding such pursuits behind the appearance of sophistication. People also squander money on gambling and drinking.

We must love one another and must not forget to remain, at heart, children of God.

*      *      *

How much of the message will sink in?

The battle against corruption bore President Aquino to power, but these days those who promised to tread the straight path are seen to be taking a detour.

Inclusive economic growth is a buzz phrase of daang matuwid, but it remains elusive; our social structures are designed for the maximum benefit of a miniscule few.

Gambling, drinking, superficial and ephemeral pursuits… the admonitions on these issues will likely go in one ear and out the other, or they probably never registered in the continuous rain.

The same goes for the part on social structures that perpetuate poverty, ignorance and corruption.

Protecting the unborn child… it’s doubtful that the papal visit will change positions in this debate. The pro-reproductive health (RH) groups will reiterate that they are also anti-abortion. And they have already argued to death that in contraception, there is no conception so there is no unborn.

Love one another… we do need this in our spiteful society, but we’re not going to see it. Only Pope Francis is guaranteed to get widespread love in this country.

His visit put the Catholic shepherds together with P-Noy, shepherd of the RH Law. The encounters have been as awkward as two persons forced to go out on a date and can’t wait for it to be over.

P-Noy, not known for verbal restraint, let out a mouthful against the clergy at his reception for the pope. He seemed puzzled that his joke on a bishop’s criticism of his receding hairline fell flat.

That presidential “tell the pope” or “isumbong mo kay Pope Francis” moment is a good gauge of what lies ahead once the pontiff is back in Rome and all the souvenir photos and video are in Instagram. This pope’s popularity is non-transferable to his shepherds.

Of course there are sure to be devotees who would have been sufficiently touched by the light of the charismatic pope to follow his teachings and become better human beings.

As for the rest, perhaps another papal visit is needed to work miracles.

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