Call him Pope Francis the Fearless, a modern fool for Christ, (1 Cor. 4:10) who on his visit to the Philippines braved a typhoon to visit the citizens of Tlaclopan, an island devastated by Typhoon Yolanda a year ago that took 6,000 lives.
As gusting wind ruffled his yellow plastic poncho the Holy Father told the survivors of the stricken city, “I am here to be with you. …I have come to tell you that Jesus is Lord, that he never lets us down. ‘Father,’ you might say to me, ‘I was let down because I’ve lost so many things, I lost my house, my livelihood, my family. I’ve illness.’ It’s true if you would say that, and I respect those sentiments, but Jesus is there nailed to the cross, and from there, he does not let us down.”
Later after hearing many of the men and women tell their stories of tragedy and heroism the Pope said, “So many of you have lost everything. I don’t know what to say to you, but the Lord does know what to say to you. Some of you lost part of your families. All I can do is keep silence. And I walk with you all with my silent heart.”
Drawn as he always is to the poor and the suffering, in Manila as he prepared to meet with young people, many saved from prostitution and homelessness, Pope Francis spoke of the need to deepen one’s sense of compassion, to go beyond simply giving to the poor by understanding their plight.
Then a 12 year old girl who had witnessed both drugs and prostitution while living on the streets tearfully asked the Pope why children were allowed to suffer. Deeply touched by the girl’s question he replied, “The nucleus of your question doesn’t have an answer,” adding “when the heart is able to ask itself something and weep, then we are able to understand something.”
He then called on the young people to care for the poor. …”no matter how much or how little we have individually, each one of us is called to personally reach out and serve our brothers and sisters in need, materially, emotionally, spiritually.”
In brief words to clergy gathered at the Cathedral in Manila, he again returned to the obligation to serve the poor. “The poor, the poor are at the heart of the Gospel, and if we take the poor from the Gospel, we cannot understand the whole message of Jesus Christ. …only by becoming poor ourselves, by stripping away our complacency will we be able to identify with the least of our brothers and sisters.”
In a nation of some 100 million, more than one quarter of the population of the Philippines are estimated to live below the poverty level and a 2009 study found that 38 percent of Filipino children live in impoverished conditions.
An estimated six million people braved the bad weather for the closing Papal Mass on the feast of El Nino, the Christ child, the patron of the Philippines. In addressing the record throng, the Holy Father said, “that the feast of the Child Jesus” reminds us that… “We need to see each child as a gift to be welcomed, cherished and protected. And we need to care for our young people, not allowing them to be robbed of hope and condemned to life on the streets.”
Upon his return to Rome, Pope Francis spoke about his encounter with families in Manila. “I have heard it said that families with many children and high birth rates are among the causes of poverty. It seems to me a simplistic opinion. I can say that the main cause of poverty is an economic system that has removed the person from the center and replaced him with the god of money; an economic system that excludes and creates the throwaway culture in which we live. … It is necessary to protect families, which face various threats, so that they can bear witness to the beauty of the family in God’s plan.”
Pope Francis is fearless not just because he flies into typhoons, but also because he is not afraid to challenge power structures and economic systems that perpetuate poverty and exploit the powerless.
Jesus’ statement that the poor will always be with us was not a prophesy but a lament that challenges each of us to examine our hearts.
Image credit: CNS photo/Malacanang photo bureau handout via EPA