Bernardo M. Villegas
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Pastoral Concerns of Pope Francis

           Thanks to his decades of experiences as priest and bishop, Pope Francis has brought to his role as Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church a wealth of insights into everyday situations that Christians face in their ordinary lives.  I recently obtained a copy of the book that he co-authored with Jewish Rabbi Abraham Skorka when the Pope was still Archbishop of Buenos Aires.  The book is a collection of reflections that the two of them made as they conducted numerous dialogues about everything concerning "heaven and earth."  The title is exactly that: "About Heaven and Earth" and contains opinions of Pope Francis about the family, faith and the role of the Church in the 21st Century.  The book that I have is in Spanish.  I am sure there is or will be a translation in English but let me already share with my readers two practical concerns that then Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio expressed about how Catholics behave in ordinary circumstances of life.

          The first has to do with the way marriages are conducted in some Catholic churches.  He was referring to practices in Argentina but his words apply one hundred percent to the Philippines.   He was lamenting how some liturgical acts like a marriage ceremony are sometimes desacralized.  In his words:  "An example is the celebration of marriage.  In some instances, one wonders whether  or not there is a religious content.  The minister preaches about certain values but many of those attending seem to be thinking of something else.  People get married because they want to obtain the blessing of God, but this desire seems to be so hidden that it is not manifested.  In some churches--sincerely I don't know how to apply the necessary remedy--there is a ferocious competition among the women sponsors and the bride, for example, in the way they dress (or undress).  These ladies are not coming to a religious act.  They are there for display.  My conscience is seriously troubled by this practice because as pastor I am tolerating it and I don't know how to stop it.  I am using the marriage ceremony as an example because that is where it is most noticeable."

          I think pastors can take the cue from Archbishop Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) and apply practical solutions to the problem.  Many Catholic churches already have dress codes, especially for women who are asked to dress modestly in order to show respect to the Blessed Sacrament and to the liturgical acts performed inside the churches.  In fact, some churches make available shawls (and other forms of covering the exposed parts of the body) that have to be used by those immodestly dressed before they are allowed to enter the church.  There is no reason why parish priests and others who act as witnesses to a marriage act (the ministers are the couple themselves) cannot require a dress code for the bride and the other women participating in the marriage ceremony.  I have seen marriages in which the bride or other members of the bridal entourage have appeared as if they were going to a swimming pool, with backs completely exposed down to the buttocks.  Parents, other relatives, the bridegrooms themselves and fashion designers can also play an important role in putting some sense into the heads of these hapless women who would go to the altar dressed like Lady Gaga or JLo!

          Another concern expressed by then Archbishop Bergoglio has to do with how we treat the poor in our midst, a  recurring topic in his homilies, informal talks and other messages as Pope today.  I quote from his dialogue with Rabbi Skorka:  "When people come to confess to me, I ask them if they give alms to the poor.  They usually answer in the affirmative.   Then I ask them if they look into the eyes of the persons to whom they give the alms.  The usual answer is "don't know."   I continue pursuing the point.  I ask them if they touch the hand of the alms receiver, of the beggar on the street.  Then they become embarrassed  and remain silent.  Almsgiving is an  act of deep human generosity when it is done for a neighbor, that is the sense of alms giving...."  These words of Pope Francis should give us food for thought about how we deal with the poor when we help them in one way or another.  Do we treat them only as objects of pity and official charity or do we deal with them as human beings with a dignity of their own, with sensitivities and feelings.  Looking into their eyes and having some physical contact with them (touching is very much part of Filipino culture) can be an important means of helping them to keep their dignity intact even as they are begging for alms.  I hope these two concerns expressed by Pope Francis, as fruits of his vast pastoral experiences, can help both priests and lay people improve our behavior as Christians in this Year of Faith.  For comments, my email address is