REFLECTIONS: A Vulnerable Pope

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/22 January) — Pope Francis has been endearingly called many things by Filipino media: Compassionate Pope, Humble Pope, People’s Pope, among others. While these are all appropriate epithets given his surprising behavior as Supreme Pontiff — forgoing ostentation and mingling with the marginalized easily come to mind — there is one more title that succinctly captures the general attitude he displayed throughout his Philippine sojourn. Borrowing loosely from an anthropological notion, I would like to also call him the Vulnerable Pope. In so many instances during his visit, the Pope demonstrated an astonishing capacity to render himself exposed.

The most obvious, and alarming, example of this defenselessness was his going around the streets of Manila in an unarmored Popemobile. The Pope had long ago explained that he wanted to be as near as possible to the crowd, his flock, and that any form of shielding would only frustrate that desire. One can easily imagine the heightened stress his security detail must have felt each time they maneuvered in a public space. This anxiety probably fed into the debatably necessary move of disabling cellular signals in some parts of Metro Manila and Leyte to prevent possible attempts to remotely trigger roadside IEDs where the Pope would pass.

Apart from his physical helplessness (to which I will return later), he articulated this notion of vulnerability in his messages as well.

In a meeting with the youth on Sunday at the University of Santo Tomas grounds, Glyzelle Palomar, a 12-year-old former street child, asked Pope Francis a variation of the age-old question, “Why does God allow people to suffer?” In response, he said “… [T]he heart of your question has no reply.” This was a frustrating rejoinder because it seemed to offer no answer at all. Surely, the Vicar of Christ, as the prime custodian of Catholic theology, had the capacity to present a satisfactory explanation. And yet he did not. Or more to the point, he could not. It was an admission that, despite his office and stature, he did not know the answer.

This was not the only occasion when Pope Francis was tongue-tied. In Leyte the previous day, he said Mass for the survivors of Typhoon Yolanda. In his sermon, he explained to the congregation that as early as a few days after the storm had hit he already wanted to fly to the Philippines and be with them. Now in their presence, he had this to say, “So many of you have lost everything. I don’t know what to say to you…. All I can do is keep silence and walk with you all with my silent heart.” Again, he had nothing to say. But far from being merely dumbfounded in the face of tragedy, he was actually articulating his vulnerability as a human being. The Pope’s silence is an eloquent expression of his being like everyone else: limited in comprehension, faltering in faith.

This vulnerability is a necessary step in delivering his intended message to the survivors of catastrophes. Only through self-deprecation can he redirect the people’s gaze away from his person — a difficult task given Pope Francis’ charisma and the Filipinos’ near idolatry of him — and toward God. While delivering his sermon, the Pope kept gesturing to his right, where the crucifix and a statue of the Virgin Mary were, to emphasize where the real succor was coming from. Only then could he say, “Let us look to Christ…. He understands us because he underwent all the trials that we… have experienced.”

In his reply to Glyzelle’s question, Pope Francis added, “Only when we too can cry about the things you said can we come close to answering that question…. When the heart is able to ask itself and weep, then we can understand something.” This is even more frustrating than his “I don’t know” reply, for we usually regard crying to be a polar opposite of understanding. We cry when we do not understand, when we cannot accept, an occurrence. The destruction of one’s property and the loss of loved ones are often accompanied by weeping and the asking of “why.” Glyzelle, overwhelmed by the complexity of her question, broke down in mid-sentence. The Pope’s suggestion seems to run counter to what we know.

But I am reminded of a scene from an old animated feature on the life of Moses which helps to clear up this apparent contradiction. In that scene, Moses was confronted with the burning bush, and as God spoke to him though that astonishing spectacle, tears ran down the patriarch’s cheeks. In all my life as a Catholic up until then, I had never encountered any reference, neither in the Scriptures nor in Church teachings, of Moses shedding tears. And yet there it was, depicted on the screen, and the idea of it seemed like the most natural thing. Reading the Bible or listening to a sermon, our mind is engaged, but in the presence of God, our entire body is, or should be, wrenched into play. Much like Glyzelle’s body was suddenly implicated while asking a prepared question.

This is what the Pope meant when he commended crying: that we respond with the body. To cry is to transform a recognition into a sensation. To feel is to expose one’s body to a gamut of emotions, running all the way from joy to pain. Only when we are vulnerable in this way can we recognize our station of flesh-in-the-world. And only then can a genuine engagement with and work in the world begin. This is nowhere more critical than in Yolanda-affected communities where wounds deeply, almost inaccessibly, run. Pope Francis warned against “a worldly compassion which is useless,” a kind of pity that sees us “greet[ing] a couple of people, giv[ing] them something, and walk[ing] on.” In those instances the body is shielded from others and whisked away as soon as possible. Engagement is denied; work is impaired; change is precluded. Instead, he proposed to “walk with you all with my silent heart.” What may seem like a simple act of walking is actually a profound promise of presence. It is that act of being with, of living with, that sets us up, not to understand at once, but to be on our way to understanding. This is what some quarters refer to as ‘journeying,’ or learning together through work.

Tread with others on equal terms, it is this path where surprise, that other idea pitched by Pope Francis to the youth, can be encountered. Without a map that only the conceited can claim to possess, the vulnerable traveler is familiar only with those bends already navigated. Those ahead are still unknown. To allow one’s self to be surprised means to move forward regardless of that uncertainty. “God reveals himself through surprises,” said the Pope. I have seen numerous posts on social media — variations of ‘Surprise me, Lord!’ — in gleeful anticipation of that surprise. Well and good, but it is a sobering thought that the Apocalypse is also God’s revelation. Authentic vulnerability is not expecting God to gift us with bow-tied presents. Yolanda was also a surprise. It was a revelation, the significance of which we are only beginning to realize. Lest we forget this early, the Pope did challenge us to learn to cry in order to understand.

In the context of this vulnerable state, Pope Francis’ appeal to “[b]ecome a beggar [and]…. [l]earn how to beg” quickly begins to make sense. All of us are in various degrees defenseless against hardship, pain, and confusion, but only the humble will admit this. And such an admission is a prerequisite to recognizing the need to be helped by others. Pope Francis encouraged the UST assembly “[t]o learn how to receive with humility[,] [t]o learn to be evangelized by the poor, by those we help, the sick, orphans, [for] they have so much to give us.” He himself, despite being the leader of the Catholic Church whom everyone looked up to for inspiration and blessing, was in the habit of asking his audiences to pray for him. Only the humble will accept, because he knows he needs it, the love of others.

The Pope’s trip to Leyte almost did not push through because of Typhoon Amang. And even if it did, the violent winds made sure to make his stay less than pleasant and much shorter than planned. Many had thought that he would choose to forego the Leyte leg of his visit because of the storm, so it was to everyone’s relief — or further anxiety — that he proceeded as planned. Given that Leyte was his primary reason for coming to the Philippines, his persistence should have been a foregone conclusion.

His saying Mass in the rain has since acquired a symbolic, if not mythic, significance. There he was, the Pope himself, wrapped in a plastic coat amidst signal number two winds. The sense of impending danger only heightened with the accidental death of a volunteer and the near crash of a private plane. For sure his flight’s landing and takeoff were unnervingly turbulent. Being in the direct path of a tropical storm must have been a harrowing experience for someone from the Western Hemisphere. The importance and urgency of our praying for him were nowhere more evident than when he was in Leyte and threatened by the elements. He braved stormy winds with us. He feared for his life with us. This was a most compelling lived example of his message of vulnerability. And a timely one, too.

In a few months, the Pope will be coming out with an encyclical on climate change. While no one knows exactly what it will say, we can infer from his previous statements on the environment what will be its general drift. And having witnessed how he bodily confronted a typhoon and subjected himself to its threats, we can rest assured that he has tried to understand how it is to live in the path of catastrophes-waiting-to-happen. When the encyclical is finally issued, we can be confident that the Pope will be on the side of poor Filipinos. (Bj A. Patiño is working toward a Masters degree in Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University)