Soft Power

Pope Francis waves to the crowd after his final mass attended by an estimated six million people. (Photo by Ryan Lim / Malacañang Photo Bureau)

In January 2015, Pope Francis visited the Philippines. Though he spent most of the five days in the capital, Manila, his real destination was Tacloban, the city at the heart of the devastation wrought by Super Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda). His desire was to be with the survivors, to be in solidarity with them as they grieved and struggled to rebuild their lives.

On the third day of his visit, Typhoon Mekkhala (known locally as Amang) made landfall and threatened to disrupt the pope's itinerary to Tacloban. He was not dissuaded by the bad weather, and his schedule was simply moved up to avoid the darkest clouds. When he landed at the airport, a waiting crowd of about 150,000 people from the city and the surrounding areas chanted "Viva il Papa, Papa Francesco!" He was to say mass in a nearby open field, but because of the pouring rain and strong winds, the organisers suggested that the mass be held in an indoor area and projected to the outdoor screens. But Pope Francis was undeterred and chose to be with the people. Thus, the outdoor altar was hurriedly given better shelter and the world witnessed the first papal mass in a typhoon, punctuated by a windswept pope in a yellow raincoat.

Pope Francis meets with Jesuits in the Philippines (January 2015).With this gesture, the pope made clear once more that the poor and those on the periphery are his priority. And when he met with 40 Jesuits in the Apostolic Nunciature, he reiterated this desire with his message to all the Jesuits in the Philippines: "Go to the peripheries, especially to the poor."

Soon after, the Philippine Jesuit Provincial, Fr Antonio Moreno SJ, began the process of formulating a concerted response to the pope's call. After months of consultation, Mindanao, the southern group of islands in the Philippines, was identified as a critical periphery because the poverty and marginalisation of its people is complicated by a longstanding conflict between government forces, Muslim separatists, communist guerrillas, indigenous peoples, and large natural resource companies.

A Province Road Map towards Mindanao was outlined in January 2016 to the superiors and directors of work in the province. Inspired by Pope Francis' call to go to the peripheries as well as his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium and encyclical Laudato si, the road map seeks to work with and for the poor, engage in new and creative evangelisation, and protect the environment. All Jesuit institutions and works in the country were challenged, given their different strengths and capacities, to reflect on ways to be more closely aligned with this direction. With three large Jesuit universities – Cagayan de Oro, Davao, and Zamboanga – already strategically positioned there, emphasis has been placed on partnering and collaborating to strengthen and expand existing institutions and works in Mindanao. Fr Moreno hopes concrete initiatives and projects can be proposed and started this year.

Pope Francis celebrates mass amidst heavy rain and strong wind near Tacloban Airport. (Photo by Benhur Arcayan / Malacañang Photo Bureau)Pope Francis hugging a child upon his arrival at Villamor Air Base in Pasay City from Tacloban. (Photo by Rey S Baniquet / NIB)

Bearing Fruit

During his visit, Filipinos across the country felt the care and affection the pope had for them in word and deed – his unscheduled trip to an orphanage, his willingness to brave bad weather to be with those who had lost so much, his personal words to console the father of Kristel Mae Padasas, a volunteer for the papal mass who was killed when scaffolding fell on her. Particularly touching was his emotional embrace of Glycel Palomar, a Tulay ng Kabataan (Bridge for the Youth) Foundation scholar, who tearfully asked him why God allowed children to be abandoned by their parents and fall into drugs and prostitution.

Unexpectedly, Filipinos were able to reciprocate this love explicitly at a mass when the pope was reading the Gospel narrating the resurrection story by the Sea of Galilee. When Pope Francis uttered the words of Jesus to Peter, "Do you love me?" many in the congregation shouted, "Yes!" before he could continue. He could not hold back his smile and quickly expressed his gratitude to much applause and laughter.

Pope Francis blesses a child upon his arrival from Tacloban and Palo, Leyte in Villamor Air Base in Pasay City.(Photo by Rey S Baniquet / NIB)The pope's affection and example have been a touchstone for the leaders and clergy of the Philippine Church. Papal quotations and anecdotes of his visit still pepper official statements, articles, and homilies a year after his departure. With his visit, Pope Francis made it easier for Filipino Catholics to connect with and understand their faith in modern times. And his impact is not limited to Catholics. A Social Weather Stations survey conducted in the Philippines two months after his visit showed the pope's trust rating had rocketed among Catholics, other Christians, and Muslims.

Pope Francis is a role model for ordinary Catholics, for clergy, and for the country's leaders. Indeed, it is hoped that his values and style of leadership will have a positive influence as Filipinos go to the polls in May for national and local elections. It may be then that his visit truly bears fruit.

Scholastic Joseph Patrick Echevarria SJ