Last year, after saving up for over a year and recovering from illness, I gave myself a long-anticipated 50th birthday gift: a pilgrimage to visit my favorite saints in Europe, and to see Pope Francis in person in Rome.
No, I didn’t have the wherewithal to arrange for a one-on-one papal audience; I didn’t even line up for one of those free tickets you can get to sit in the cordoned area closer to the stage in St. Peter’s Square.
On a rainy Wednesday morning last September, I stuffed a croissant into my bag and took a bus to the Vatican, where, at 7 a.m., I managed to get a good spot behind a barrier before the 9 a.m. general audience. Just a glimpse, I whispered in prayer.
It might sound overly cinematic to recount that the rain stopped just before the popemobile began its rounds, but it really did.
There he passed, about 15 feet away, close enough for me to see the twinkle in his eyes. And my heart was so full, my tears fell.
I’ve been blessed (and old enough) to have seen three popes up close in my lifetime.
In December 1970, I was a six-year-old sitting on my father’s shoulders when Pope Paul VI passed by in an open car (a brave thing to do, considering that a nut case actually tried to kill him when he arrived at the Manila International Airport).
In the 1990s, I again got lucky, joining a press trip to Rome and enjoying an unobstructed view of a saint, John Paul II, who turned and walked toward our group when a colleague screamed, “Holy Father, we’re from the Philippines!”
And then, there was the Pope Francis encounter.
I had decided that I would not try to get close to Pope Francis in Manila, but it was not because I was lazy or a snob.
In 1995, my mother, a companion and I were in the sea of humanity trying to get close to the Quirino Grandstand to see John Paul II. I felt my feet getting lifted off the ground against my will and I had to gasp for air, and I seriously thought we were going to be trampled to death.
I was 20 years younger and much stronger then, so I knew early on I would not have the energy now to go sleepless, stand all day or, as it turned out, wait in the rain for hours.
I envied friends who were thrilled at the sight of Pope Francis, but I tearfully hung on to every word as I watched him on TV, and found the quiet experience very meaningful.
The effect of seeing religious leaders like John Paul II and Francis in person can be explained on many levels.
(Pope Benedict had the misfortune of being the regular guy, the valley between two peaks of incredible charisma that were his predecessor and successor, but that doesn’t take away from the important work he did—and from the great humility that allowed him to accept his limitations, and step out of St. Peter’s shoes.)
For Filipinos born and raised as Catholics and who continue to keep this faith, being in the presence of an anointed leader of your Church who actually walks the talk—from dodging security to bless the sick, to throwing open the shady Vatican financial system—is enough to raise your spirits, in the wake of so much negativity surrounding the Catholic leadership.
From a wider perspective, it’s the simple phenomenon of being in the presence of holiness, exuded by all leaders who preach compassion and defer to a power greater than themselves. Grace, after all, is a gift that crosses all platforms and boundaries. Hey, I would line up to see the Dalai Lama, too.
If there was anything I got from Pope Francis, however, it was that he wasn’t going to change the Church all by himself. Many times he admitted he had no words, especially in the face of the tragedy endured by the “Yolanda” survivors.
I was especially struck by the footage of him stopping in front of a poor family and saying, with a deep, almost overwhelmed breath, “Pray for me.”
A good man
He needs our prayers, he was telling us, because he is, after all, just a man, entrusted with a job much bigger than himself, in a Church greater even than the sum of all its parts.
Yes, he is a man, and should not be prayed to like a deity—but I believe he is a good man, with good intentions, who can pray for us just as we pray for him.
If I woke up tomorrow and discovered that Pope Francis was an arrogant, bigoted pedophile who didn’t like Asians, would my opinion of him change? Yes; it would seriously break my heart. But it wouldn’t make me turn my back on the faith that has sustained me all my life.
Thus do I worry when people expect the superhuman of Pope Francis, people at both ends of the spectrum. I laughed out loud when a woman on the street told an interviewer that “parang gagaling yung sakit mo, pati cancer,” when you see him.
There were the skeptics flooding social media with virtual challenges to the Pope to deliver, as if the age-old rules of the traditionally conservative institution could be swept aside by the declarations of one man, and who expressed disappointment when he prioritized the family still. Last I heard, he didn’t say anybody outside of a family was going to burn.
My officemate, who’s unabashedly gay, has a more lighthearted attitude which I wish others would emulate; he shared a meme on his Facebook page of the Pope and his “Who am I to judge?” statement, with the comment, “Love you, Papa.”
He’s a good person; many of my good friends are gay, and I’ll bet my afterlife that they are not going to hell.
On the other hand, for practicing Catholics like me with more liberal views—yes, I wish the Church would someday allow divorce, contraception and gay marriage, and stop coddling priests involved in sexual abuse cases—such negativity unfortunately includes other Catholics practicing the worst kind of hypocrisy: judging other people in the name of (gasp) religion.
It’s best epitomized by a post I read on Facebook: “If you can’t say anything good about the Pope, then you should just shut up, you idiots”—followed by a declaration that Catholicism is the “one true faith.” So much for mercy and compassion.
I’ll end this by paraphrasing my own final Facebook post on the matter. Pope Francis isn’t the Savior, and many of us wish he would just go out and allow gay people to marry or unhappy couples to divorce. Then again, he cannot change the doctrine of a Church he joined and which existed before he did, at least not in one fell swoop.
I like to believe, though, that this man knows very well that compassion is more important than doctrine. And I will embrace Pope Francis and his imperfections, inconsistencies, and limitations anyway, just as God has embraced mine.