Pope Vatican

The silence of Pope Francis

Jayeel Cornelio
In silence we too need to ask whether religious inspiration is enough to reverse social injustice in this country

Many may not realize it but Christianity is at its finest in moments of silence. Perhaps one of his most moving encounters with Filipinos was when the raincoat-donned Pope called for a minute of silence in Tacloban

In silence, all repressions drowned out by the noise, agony, and neglect came back in what must have been a harrowing moment of remembrance.  Making the Pope’s Mass more poignant was the rain that was a chilling reminder of what happened on Yolanda’s ground zero.

More than a year since the typhoon struck, many Filipinos are still in shock and it has taken a Pope to come for genuine collective mourning to take place. Make no mistake about it: In that episode of silence – momentary as it was – repressed truth came out. In stark contrast to the deafening cheers from people who welcomed the Pope were those tears emanating from the same people whose lives Yolanda left broken forever.

Silence has allowed the Pope to demonstrate his humility and own vulnerability, attributes that make him a captivating figure to people Catholic or otherwise.  “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…I have no more words to tell you.”

Silence offers itself as the most powerful counterpoint to the noise of Philippine society. Ours is in fact talkative, in which it seems easier to condemn than to listen in solitude and wisdom. Many of us, writers like myself included, have been hysterically eager to use the proverbial pulpit – whether it’s in Malacañang, the church, or social media – to blame others. It is for this reason that the President’s speech in front of the clergy was regrettably inappropriate.

In the past year or so, we have blamed leaders, celebrities, and even one another for the evils in our society. For those of us active in social media, many comments people hurl at each other are simply heartbreaking. In this cacophony of faultfinding, it is in the end the victims of murder, rape, corruption, discrimination, and Yolanda who receive yet another blow of neglect.  

Humanized the papacy

In this light, Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air.  Although not saying anything new, Francis has humanized the papacy by offering what many see as a genuine form of Christianity. In silence, his concern for the weak becomes umistakable.  

In Malacañang, Francis reminded the President and his official family that essential to the attainment of “national goals is the moral imperative of ensuring social justice and respect for human dignity.” 

At the Manila Cathedral, the Pope greeted his men and women religious with “great affection” but minced no words when he reminded them that “only by becoming poor ourselves…will we be able to identify with the least of our brothers and sisters.” 

At the Mall of Asia Arena, Francis ended his message to the families by calling on them “to show concern for those who do not have a family of their own…[and to] never let them feel isolated, alone and abandoned.” 

In Tacloban, the Pope ended his homily with disarming honesty unexpected of the one to whom the eternal keys of Saint Peter have been entrusted: “This is what comes from my heart, and forgive me if I have no other words to express this, but please know Jesus never lets you down.”    

Although not new, the profundity of these messages will only become comprehensible in a context of silence and reflection.  

And yet there is another noise that needs to be dealt with. Quite oddly, it is the noisy adulation accorded to the man himself. As a sociologist, I do not deny the popular spirituality underpinning much of the fanfare. But how far can all the emotional ruptures, tears of joy, and sudden modes of religiosity go once the spectacle dies out and the holidays are over?

And so in silence we too need to ask whether religious inspiration is enough to reverse social injustice in this country. Once the Pope leaves, he leaves behind a religious institution confused about its role in the public sphere, a political status quo dominated by dynasties, a bureaucracy still mired in corruption, and an economy whose growth is enjoyed only by a few. The disquieting fact is that these institutions are largely made up of people who profess to be followers of the Pope. 

Pardon me, but those cute Francis photos are noisy and inconsequential distractions. The many pressing problems that Christianity and the wider Philippine society need to confront are far more serious than an Abunda/Aquino treatment of the Pope can judiciously shoulder. 

More than anything else, it is the profound and serious message of silence that must captivate our society. – Rappler.com


Dr Jayeel Serrano Cornelio is a sociologist of religion and the director of the Development Studies Program at the Ateneo de Manila University.  He was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany.  He is the guest editor of the most recent special issue of Philippine Studies dedicated to Filipino Catholicism (http://www.rappler.com/specials/pope-francis-ph/75656-catholic-church-philippines).  Follow him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.   

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