The Papal Visit: a Protestant Perspective
CONJUGATIONS - Lila Ramos Shahani (Pilipino Star Ngayon) - January 19, 2015 - 12:00am

So my Mom and I were discussing the nation’s euphoria at the Pope’s arrival over dinner. Religion was a particularly complicated topic in a household such as ours, what with our checkered history.

You see, my Mom’s grandfather, Hilario Valdez, had been town-mates and friends with Gregorio Aglipay in Batac, Ilocos Norte. Together, they joined the Katipunan in the 1890s and Aglipay convinced my great-Lolo to convert to the Aglipayan faith. After the Americans had occupied the Philippines and the Aglipayans lost their church properties, my Mom’s mother (Angela Valdez) — born in the beginning of the American era — searched for something more progressive and liberal within Christianity, finally discovering Methodism, which is part of the Protestant faith.

When my grandparents met and fell in love, my mother’s Catholic-born father (Narciso Ramos), converted to Methodism because of my Lola. In 1926, they were married in my grandfather’s home in an ecumenical wedding in Batac.

But they carried with them many Aglipayan histories: not just those of Aglipay himself, but those of Isabelo de los Reyes (the labor leader who translated the first Filipino language Bible), Emilio Aguinaldo, Apolinario Mabini, Melchora Aquino, and, of course, Ferdinand Marcos, a nephew of my Lola. This thin thread of Filipino religious history runs far and wide: today, few people know that Marian Rivera — who recently married Dingdong Dante in an extravaganza wedding — converted to Catholicism from the Aglipayan faith just before her marriage.

Aglipay himself, a former Catholic priest, had been excommunicated by the Spanish Archbishop Bernardino Nozaleda in 1899 with the permission of Pope Leo the 13th. This was an Asian echo of the Protestant Reformation of the early 16th century, which began, of course, as an attempt to reform the Roman Catholic Church, then deeply mired in clerical corruption. As the name implies, Protestants “protested” against Papal authority, repudiating the very institution of the Papacy as a perversion of the Christian faith. Rather than resort to the mediation of Catholic clergy, the former Augustinian priest, Martin Luther, held that men should have direct access to God by way of scripture.

This is ultimately why Luther translated the Bible, hitherto available only in Latin, into the vernacular German of his time, just as de los Reyes translated the Bible for Filipinos. From then on, the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages has been a mainstay of Protestant evangelization. The invention of the printing press and the spread of capitalist markets made such vernacular language Bibles even more widespread so that the Bible today continues to be one of the best-selling books in the world.

Protestant Reformation was thus a key moment not only in the deconstruction of absolutist authority — embodied in the Papacy as monarchial power — but also in the spread of vernacular literacy, capitalism, individualism and many other features associated with what today can be summed up in one word: modernity. Indeed, it would be difficult to conceive of today’s modern world without the Protestant Reformation.

Thanks to the latter, the Catholics were forced to launch a Counter-Reformation: these attempts at countering the rising tide of Protestant influence meant that Catholics were forced to clean up their act, reform their clerical practices, and improve their educational institutions. But Catholic reaction also opened up a long history of brutal religious wars, such as those in the 17th century. Over the centuries, Protestants and Catholics have come to terms with their differences, and today a more ecumenical relationship exists between the two.

Yet the Catholic Church remains much different from Protestant churches on numerous doctrinal, social and political issues. For one thing, only Catholicism has a universally recognized religious leader who is also head of what remains a somewhat medieval state. You might say that the Pope continues in the tradition of European monarchs — complete with his Swiss guards and medieval robes — very much a successor of the Roman Empire. There is nothing by comparison in other religions.

Today, the Protestant tradition, for all its imperfections, has yielded its fair share of Filipino nationalists: Jovito Salonga, Quintin Doromal, Feliciano Belmonte and Fidel Ramos — all of whom have attended our church, Cosmopolitan Church on Taft Avenue. So ours is a family tradition in which the Catholic Pope is always respectfully but pointedly questioned, because, after Luther, we do not traditionally believe in an intermediary between man and God. How do we Protestants (a minority religion constituting a little over one percent of the Philippine population) assess the Pope’s record and his arrival in the Philippines?

Well, my family and I — and I daresay most Protestants — welcome the arrival of this rare and benevolent individual with open arms, even as doctrinal questions linger.

To begin with, Pope Francis’ visit to the Philippines has drawn attention to the many problems our country faces. More, his visit to Tacloban has set the stage for an encyclical on climate change, which will have enormous influence around the world. His fight against inequality maximizes options for the poor, in the wake of Vatican II, along the lines of liberation theology, which he grew up with in Latin America. It should also be remembered that he worked quietly behind closed doors to help lift US sanctions on Cuba. More pertinently, his ground-breaking focus on the faults of the Curia has been unprecedented in Vatican history. Finally, his inclusion of gays, lesbians, transgenders, and those born out of wedlock among the children of God remains equally unprecedented.

And there is the matter of his interfaith universality and open-ness: Archbishop Antonio Tagle, following Pope Francis’ example, hosted a breakfast for non-Catholics in a recent ecumenical breakfast in his official residence and helped organize a Secretariat for interfaith understanding. Underlining this Vatican initiative, the Pope also met with religious leaders of different faiths while in Manila. In this sense, Pope Francis is a pioneer.

Prior to his visit to the Philippines, the Pope had discouraged political leaders from using his image for political purposes. In his Malacañang speech, he demonstrated compelling concern for the rights and welfare of OFWs, indigenous peoples and religious minorities, and was uncompromising in his condemnation of political corruption — even as he has applied the Gospels in the past to corrupt public servants who grow fat off what was ultimately meant for the poor. Throughout, he conveys humility, tenderness, compassion, and, above all, a sense of humor.

Will he be overpowered by the Curia, who are — in his own words — susceptible to becoming “immortal, immune and indispensable”? Will he be able to succeed in making the finances of the Vatican transparent? Will he be defeated by entrenched forces? Will he become more progressive about family planning – so necessary in the fight against poverty -- and LGBT rights, so critical in the struggle for social equality? All this remains to be seen.

But in this time of rising global conflict and the cheapening of human life — Charlie Hebdo, Boko Haram, ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the Muslim claims in the Philippine South — we need a unifier rather than a divider. On Charlie Hebdo, Pope Francis has been vocal about the fact that one cannot disparage the religion of others — that, while he decries the violence, he also decries the religious disrespect that spawned it.

Perhaps Pope Francis is a spiritual reformer in the grand tradition of Popes St John XXIII and St John Paul II before him. Perhaps he will bring about the winds of change this fractured era sorely needs — a Pope who inspires not only Catholics, but also other Christians, those belonging to other religious faiths, and even agnostics and non-believers.  

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