Lessons from a Papal Visit
James Keenan defined mercy as entering into the chaos of another person. During his recent papal visit to the Philippines, Pope Francis responded with mercy to situations of grave human suffering. Francis made the centerpiece of his trip a pastoral visit to the city of Tacloban, whose inhabitants experienced the devastation of super typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Francis celebrated mass with storm survivors in the midst of strong winds and pouring rain of an impending typhoon. Struggling to find words to comfort those who have lost homes and loved ones Francis said, “I can only be silent; I accompany you silently, with my heart…”
A similar encounter with human tragedy that defied words happened at the pope’s meeting with young people. A tearful young girl who had been homeless asked the pope why God allows children to suffer. Francis admitted that the question is unanswerable and he spoke of the importance of weeping for and with those who suffer: “The marginalized weep, those who are neglected weep, the scorned weep, but those of us who have relatively comfortable life, we don’t know how to weep. Certain realities of life are seen only with eyes that are cleansed by tears. I ask each one of you to ask: Can I weep? Can I weep when I see a child who is hungry, on drugs and on the street, homeless, abandoned, mistreated or exploited as a slave by society?”
These words of Francis calling for solidarity with those who suffer challenge the perspective of those who view the poor as unsightly objects to be hidden from view. An expression of this perspective came to light after the papal visit. The government’s Department of Social Welfare collected around 100 homeless families living on the streets along the papal motorcade route in Manila and brought them to an out-of-town resort for a “training seminar.” After the papal visit the families were returned back to the streets. Hiding the poor is a common practice by government agencies whenever there are visiting dignitaries or international events. In contrast to Francis’ humane response of entering into the chaos of human suffering and providing accompaniment and support, some people in government seek to push those already at the margins of society further out into the peripheries where they cannot be seen or heard.
It is imperative that the Church challenge and denounce such treatment of the poor and vulnerable. In his homily to local clergy and religious Francis said, “the poor are at the center of the Gospel, are at heart of the Gospel, if we take away the poor from the Gospel we can’t understand the whole message of Jesus Christ.” The poor should also be at the center of the Church’s mission and the government’s programs. The restoration and protection of their dignity matters more than having a postcard-perfect picture of the Philippines for visitors.