Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Second Coming

I recently watched an interview with the German author Matthias Politycki, who spoke about the sharp decline of religious observance in Europe. While researching a novel, he said that he tried in vain to find one church - Protestant or Catholic - in a German city that rang its bells, either at the quarter-hour, the hour, or ever. People would simply complain, he said, because they regard it as just noise. "How can a vibrant religion," Politycki asked, "not ring the bells?"

Every bell in the Philippines must've been pealing non-stop wherever Pope Francis (or "Santo Papa" - Holy Father - as he is called here) went during his five day visit from the 15th to the 19th. Some observers said that he was afforded "rock star" status. But no rock star who ever lived would have received such a reception as the Pope did during those five days. Every television station - broadcast or cable - followed his every movement live, from the touchdown of his plane from Sri Lanka to the takeoff of his plane to Rome.Platoons of police were deployed to escort his Popemobile, traffic was diverted, and tens of thousands of people lined the routes of his scheduled motorcade to wave or to get a smartphone photo as he sped past.

On the 17th, he flew to Tacloban, a city that was destroyed by super typhoon Haiyan on November 8, 2013, even as another typhoon was nearing the city. About 150,000 people had gathered in yellow raincoats [the Vatican's colors are yellow and white] on the spit of land once occupied by the city's airport. Amidst steady rain and gusting winds, the Pope's plane landed successfully and he proceeded to perform a miracle. The typhoon changed course and headed north.

He had to cut short his visit in Tacloban and returned to Manila to preside over a Sunday mass that attracted hordes of worshippers - an estimated six million. By the time his plane took off on Monday morning, Filipinos were talking about the "Pope Francis Effect" on the country's eighty million Catholics - the third-largest Catholic nation in the world.* In the weeks since, there have even been excited hints of a papal visit in 2016.

During the Philippine president's audience with the Pope, Benigno Aquino III complained to Pope Francis about the interference of the powerful Philippine Catholic Bishops' Conference in national politics, actively sabotaging measures to provide free family planning and contraceptives to Filipinos, in a country that is ranked 72nd in land area among the world's nations, but 12th in population. The Bishops, in turn, expressed dismay that the president should exploit such an august occasion to express such petty political concerns. The Pope made no comment. How could he when an enture nation had thrown itself at his feet like he was Christ incarnate?

*After Brazil and Mexico.

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