A Whiff of Hope

Pope Francis celebrating his first mass in the Philippines at the Manila Cathedral.

I heard mass – seriously – for the first time today since I converted from Catholicism to Evangelical Christianity in 1996. Pope Francis is in town and I wanted to hear what he had to say. So I watched (attended?) his first mass in the Philippines on TV this morning. It was an edifying experience, and I was blessed.

Though I am now in census terms a “Protestant,” I don’t like to belabor the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism except where they involve the salvific work of Jesus Christ. On that point, I don’t negotiate. But when I and my Catholic friends can agree that Christ alone saves, then I don’t spend time quibbling on nomenclatures and the matters of tradition and liturgy that separate us. I choose to celebrate the beliefs we share, and use these as a launchpad for dialogue. There is more hope in this; it is more loving. I know, however, that this is not a common stand in the Evangelical and Catholic worlds; nonetheless, it’s mine.

Today, I heard Pope Francis preach to the clergy and to families, and on both occasions, he pointed to Christ and His command for us to love one another as the essential need of the Philippines today. I agree. My country is intrinsically fragmented because of its strange geography. An archipelago comprised of more than 7,000 islands, its population dissected by waters, language, ethnicity, and cultures, we often literally have trouble understanding each other. But as Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, quoting Horacio V. dela Costa, correctly pointed out this morning, the Philippines’ two treasures are its music and its faith; and though we have a multitude of voices, we harmonize on those. In the mass today, both filled the Manila Cathedral and overflowed to the grounds beyond, binding the clergy within and the laity without in the unifying, healing Spirit of Christ.

It is uplifting to watch the papal events. The street scenes are similar to those of the Black Nazarene procession last week except that the crowds are not a mob and there is more faith in evidence than idolatry (or so I hope). The Filipino bayanihan spirit is in play. There is order and respect for rules and schedules… I am amazed at what our government and police force are capable of when they set their minds to it. So this is possible… So we can work together efficiently when we want to… So we can seamlessly overcome logistical and security nightmares when needed. There doesn’t seem to be any turfing, finger-pointing, or mud-slinging. Not business as usual. Another set of differences overlooked. Who knew?

This, to me, is what faith can accomplish when focused on the right Person. Not the Pope, but Christ. I appreciate that Pope Francis models Christlike humility and, eschewing his own popularity, he points everyone to Jesus. I can only imagine what mighty changes may happen while Francis sits on Peter’s chair.

I particularly admire the Pope’s courageous reaction to the recent attack on Charlie Hebdo:  “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith,” he said in an interview en route to the Philippines. “There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity … in freedom of expression there are limits.”

Hear hear. While I condemn the heinous massacre at Charlie, I feel that the self-professed atheistic magazine is itself pretty brutal with all religions and their adherents. This is merely prejudice cloaked with the mantle of free speech. No right is absolute. When you malign me and belittle what I hold most dear and use your power to bring me to my knees, that is just another form of violence which may escalate to intellectual terrorism if allowed to go untramelled. Stephen Glover of The Daily Mail astutely observed:

For obvious reasons, Charlie Hebdo has quickly assumed heroic status. Whatever shortcomings it may have had were instantly set aside as millions of people privately and publicly declared ‘Je suis Charlie’.

How many of these people, as well as those who will sample this week’s five-million print run of the magazine in six languages, know exactly what this avowal involves? I, too, ‘am Charlie’ if it means I fervently support free speech within the law, and abominate the terrorists who brutally took 12 innocent lives and who want to destroy what offends them.

But I am very definitely ‘not Charlie’ if the proposition entails embracing what I take to be the core values of the magazine, which seem to me to be bigoted, intolerant and often puerile.

I abhor the killings and I exalt the freedom of expression as the cornerstone of democracy, mais sans doute, je ne suis pas Charlie. As Pope Francis said, ultimately, what we say must lead to “the common good.” Rights are only effective when exercised responsibly, otherwise they belie their very nature by curtailing the privileges and liberty of others. Without being a Pollyana about it, I must assert that the only effective, mature method we have of co-existing in this world is to love one another. Jesus is right again.

It was with these thoughts that I watched the concluding rites of the Pope’s meeting with families this afternoon. As he blessed children on stage, the stately choir was replaced by a band that played the buoyant opening chords of “Celebrate, Jesus, Celebrate.” My husband and I were surprised, but happily so. This song is a joyful chorus we Evangelical Christians sing in our worship services, especially at Easter. It was made popular by Don Moen, a famous Evangelical writer/composer who frequently visited the Philippines in the last decade and was “discovered” by Catholic groups in the new millennium. “Celebrate…” was followed by “Shine Jesus Shine,” another well-loved Evangelical song. We sat there watching the crowd on TV and singing along, one with them in the Spirit of Christ.

It seems this is only the beginning. I am encouraged because there’s a new man in the Vatican who likes to reach out and touch people, and doesn’t mind overturning a few traditions in the process. Indeed, the times, they are a-changin’. I feel a whiff of hope. Don’t you?

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