“Presiding over the churches in charity”…that is how Clement of Rome, the second successor of Peter, wrote about the Church of Rome. The Pope is principally the Bishop of Rome who, as such, presides over the church throughout the world. And Pope Francis has, in speech and action, in policy and in execution, made it clear that, keeping with the spirit of the Gospel, “presiding over” will not mean “lording it over”—because in the church, none is supposed to lord it over another! And that is just what appears to be the trouble with the forthcoming visit of Pope Francis. The fault is not with the Pope but with our propensity to overdo things.
It is understandable that every effort is taken to secure the person of the Pope, after all, previous Papal visitors had close brushes with death in the Pearl of the Orient Seas! But when someone, amid the splendor of Michelangelo’s frescoes and the awesome painting of the Last Judgment at the altar of the Sistine Chapel, accepts election to the Petrine Office, he knows that he slips on the shoes not only of the Fisherman, but of a glorious train of martyrs. It cannot be his priority to preserve himself from harm and neither should it be ours.
On the day of the Pope’s arrival, Manila will be a no-fly zone. In consequence, airlines have canceled their flights. Is the Holy Father aware of the inconvenience that has been visited on the people because of this exaggerated concern for his safety? At all papal events, only a privileged few, handpicked by their bishops, or fortunate enough to get their hands on passes and IDs will be assured some place within seeing distance of the Pope. Need we remind ourselves that this is an apostolic visit, the visit of Shepherd who wants to be with the flock entrusted to him by The Lord? How can the visit be pastoral if every attempt is made to keep the people away from their pastor?
The question has frequently been asked whether the Pope’s visit will make a difference in church membership. As far as I understand it, the Pope’s visit is not some ploy at winning adherents. Demographics are not the theme of this visit. It has nothing in common with a political sortie. True to his own admonition, he wants to be with people, “to smell like the sheep”. When he kisses persons afflicted with repugnant diseases, hugs children, tenderly soothes the foreheads of the disabled and the sick, he is not putting on a show. He is being true to himself and to the calling of his office. “Hinder them not”….that was the Lord’s command to those who sought to protect him from the mob.
A sense of church and the building of the church: that is what I hope will be the fruit of the Papal Visit. When a Filipino Catholic realizes that he is part of a large community on a pilgrimage to the Father, led by the Holy Father, that will be the highest accomplishment of the Pope’s visit. Faith is reinforced by the conviction that it is the faith of a community, and the gatherings at all Papal events should be community gatherings. When he leaves, the poor will still return to their hovels, the sick, to their sickbeds, the oppressed to their situations of privation and servitude. But when having been so close to the Pope, they can carry on with the business of life in the joyful awareness that we do not wander aimlessly about but are headed for the fullness of the realization of all that life and history portend —not as scraggly individuals but as a joyful community of persons ready to bear each other’s burdens, then it shall have been a meaningful pastoral visit!