Bernardo M. Villegas
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How to Gladden Pope Francis

           Some pundits are worried about how to accommodate five to six million people who are expected to turn out in the biggest encounter Pope Francis will have during his visit to Manila on January 18, after his trip to Tacloban and Palo, Leyte. From what I have read from all his pronouncements since he became the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, the number of people is the least of his worry.  Even if only a few hundreds turn out to see him, he will be most happy if most, if not all of them, use the occasion of his pastoral visit  to return to God by going to Confession and receiving as frequently as possible Holy Communion during these coming weeks, especially during the Advent and Christmas seasons. After all, these are part of the petitions that Catholic church goers repeat in the prayer during Mass after Communion, as mandated by the Bishops.  The best way to gladden Pope Francis is to come closer to Jesus Christ through the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.  I am sure that he would consider his trip to this part of the worthwhile even if only one soul undergoes a conversion to God.

          What about those who do not belong to the Roman Catholic Church but are as eager to see the Pope in the various sites he will visit?  Knowing the main reason why he decided in the last minute to come to the Philippines after his long-planned trip to Sri Lanka, my answer here is that all of us, whether Catholics or not, will make him very happy if we show by both word and deeds that the poor have a special place in our heart.  This is what he emphatically wrote in his Apostolic Exhortation entitled “The Joy of the Gospel.”  In paragraph 197 of this document, which one can find in any bookstore, Pope Francis reminds all people of good will that “God’s heart has a special place of the poor, so much so that he himself ‘became poor’ (2 Cor 8:9).  The entire history of our redemption is marked by the presence of the poor.  Salvation came to us from the ‘yes’ uttered by a lowly maiden from a small town on the fringes of a great empire.  The Saviour was born in a manger, in the midst of animals, like children of poor families; he was presented at the Temple along with two turtledoves, the offering made by those who could not afford a lamb (cf. Lk 2:24’ Lev 5:7); he was raised in a home of ordinary workers and worked with his own hands to earn his bread.  When he began to preach the Kingdom, crowds of the dispossessed followed him, illustrating his word: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor’ (lil 4:18).   He assured those burdened by sorrow and crushed by poverty that God has a special place for them in his heart:  ‘Blessed are you poor, yours is the kingdom of God’ (Lk  6:20); he made himself one of them:  ‘I was hungry and you gave me food to eat’, and he taught them that mercy towards all these is the key to heaven.”

          To the Pope, it is not enough for us to engage in corporal works of mercy because of our compassion for the poor.  It is not a matter of converting your church into an NGO officially committed to the eradication of poverty in our society.  He will want to see evidence of our considering the poor as our equals as human beings.  In Par. 199 of the same document cited above, he writes:  “Our commitment does not consist exclusively in activities or programmes of promotion and assistance; what the Holy Spirit mobilizes is not an unruly activism, but above all an attentiveness which considers the other ‘in a certain sense as one with ourselves.’  This loving attentiveness is the beginning of a true concern for their person which inspires me effectively to seek their good.  This entails appreciating the poor in their goodness, in their experience of life, in their culture and in their ways of living the faith.”  In many occasions, he advised us to look into the eyes of a beggar to whom we are giving alms, engaging him in a conversation of equal to equal.   I remember how as a graduate student in the United States, I would be advised to follow the practice of St. Josemaria Escriva with the first university students he formed in the City of Madrid of visiting the poorest homes in the slum districts and engaging them in conversations as they gifted them with some sweets or other food items that were accessible only to the well-to-do.  We knew very well that we were not addressing in any substantial way the problem of poverty but were just giving self-esteem to the very poor by engaging them in a conversation. This practice is continued in all centres of youth formation under the spiritual care of Opus Dei all over the world.

          Most important of all, the Pope wants to make sure that we never forget that “the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care.  The great majority of the poor have a special oneness to the faith; they need God and we must not fail to offer them his friendship, his blessing, his word, the celebration of the sacraments and a journey of growth and maturity in the faith.  Our preferential option for the poor must mainly translate into a privileged and preferential religious care.” Let us, therefore, always make sure that our material help to the poor is always accompanied by a serious effort to strengthen and reinforce their Christian faith.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.