SRI LANKA/THE PHILIPPINES — All papal trips may be equal, in the sense that each is about bringing a pontiff’s message to some corner of the world, but some are more equal than others in terms of drama and impact.
Pope Francis’ Jan. 12-19 outing to Sri Lanka and the Philippines, which wraps up Sunday, falls into the “more equal” category. Featuring media and political storms, as well as a literal tempest, it’s had a little bit of everything.
In Sri Lanka, Francis visited a country ripped apart by a 30-year civil war fueled by religious and ethnic tensions, a country which recently elected a reformer president preaching reconciliation, unity, and peace.
His first official act was to receive Francis, and many Sri Lankans seemed to think President Maithripala Sirisena would get a bump in popularity.
The pontiff made a surprise visit to a Buddhist temple, expressing what he called the “growing respect” of the Catholic Church for other faiths.
On the plane to the Philippines, Francis created a sensation by commenting on the Charlie Hebdo attacks, saying violence can’t be excused, but neither can insulting someone’s religion.
The Vatican was forced to issue a clarification, saying he was not suggesting the French satirical magazine deserved what it got.
In the Philippines, Francis was greeted with “Pope-mania” frenzy, attracting vast and pumped-up crowds everywhere he went.
The pontiff made waves Friday night by denouncing the “ideological colonization” of the family, which the Vatican confirmed was partly a reference to gay marriage, and added an impromptu defense of the Church’s ban on birth control.
On Saturday, the pontiff braved a tropical storm to fly to an island that had been ground zero for a 2013 super-typhoon that killed more than 6,000 people and left a staggering 4.1 million homeless.
Francis met 30 survivors, including a woman who told him she’d lost her husband, her brother, and five daughters.
The night before, Francis was told the pilot was concerned about making the flight in such weather, and his response was that “going there is the main reason I’ve come … no matter what, we must go.”
He had to cut the visit short by four hours, but he made it.
Sunday, Francis celebrated a Mass in downtown Manila that shattered the all-time record for attendance at a papal event by drawing more than 6 million people.
Standing back from these details, here are three big-picture things to learn from Francis’ Asian odyssey.
- Just when you think you’ve got this pope figured out, he’ll surprise you.
For instance, the usual take on Francis is that he’s a bit of a liberal, while William Donohue of the Catholic League in the United States is seen as a conservative. If one were to ponder who might feel vindicated by whatever Francis would say about the Paris attacks, Donohue probably wouldn’t come to mind.
Yet not long ago, Donohue drew criticism for saying that while violence is wrong, Muslims had a right to be angry over the magazine’s depictions of Muhammad — in essence, the same point Francis made.
“This is a sweet victory for me,” Donohue crowed on Jan. 15.
During a session with families in a downtown Manila arena on Friday, Francis delivered a trademark impromptu flourish in defense of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s controversial 1968 encyclical upholding Church teaching on contraception.
“He had the strength to defend openness to life, at a time when many people were worried about population growth,” Francis said.
The pontiff asked priests hearing confessions to be “very generous” in such cases, but he left no doubt that the broad Catholic discipline on contraception isn’t about to change.
Moral of the story: This pope can be maddeningly difficult to pin down, at least by the categories of left and right.
- Francis illustrates why a good narrative is often a pope’s best friend.
At a few points this week, Francis said or did things that might have gotten another pontiff into trouble. In Sri Lanka, for instance, he called on Asian Catholics to ratchet up their “missionary zeal” to spread the faith.
When Pope John Paul II said the same thing in India in 1999, there were protests from Hindus about Christian proselytism. Because Francis is seen as a man of outreach and tolerance, no one batted an eye.
- Francis is a leader who seems to loosen people’s tongues.
Last October, Francis urged Catholic bishops taking part in a Vatican summit on the family to “speak boldly,” and they did. The meeting, called a synod, sometimes resembled a pro wrestling match in its free-wheeling clash of views.
In the Philippines, Francis was welcomed by President Benigno Aquino, the scion of a political dynasty that’s the closest thing the country has to the Kennedys. Like them, the Aquinos are Catholic but sometimes chafe at the Church’s hierarchy.
In the presence of the pope, Aquino aired that dirty laundry.
Among other failings, Aquino accused the bishops of silence about abuses in the previous administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who was placed under arrest in a hospital bed in 2012 on corruption charges.
It’s rare to hear a Catholic head of state speak so frankly on such an occasion, but Francis seems to have that effect on people.
While there are many things one might debate about Francis, here’s an iron-clad certainty that his Asian outing confirms: He’s never, ever a bore.
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Is the honeymoon over?
Taken in isolation, both the pope’s comments on Charlie Hebdo and his strong language on gay marriage and contraception might amount to little more than a one-day blip on the media and cultural radar screen.
But their coming so quickly, one after the other, has left some observers wondering if this might create an inflection point, one that marks a dimming of the public love affair with Francis.
Especially in the European press, immediate reaction to his remarks on the Paris attacks was fairly negative, with some suggesting he had condoned violence and others objecting to his insistence on limits to free speech.
That cycle of criticism came before he waded into the culture wars Friday, but it’s easy to imagine that in secular circles, what he had to say on gay marriage and birth control won’t make many people more inclined to give him a break.
The one-two punch undeniably has brought some of the stiffest media reaction Francis has faced since his election, but that’s not saying much, since overall his coverage has been largely adulatory.
Time will tell how things develop, but at this stage there are three reasons for suspecting it may be premature to write an epitaph for the honeymoon.
First, as reporting and commentary in coming days unpacks what the pope actually said, his comments in both cases likely will come to seem more nuanced and less harsh.
On Charlie Hebdo, it was clear at the time that the pope was not condoning the attacks, especially since he began by saying that violence in the name of God can never be justified.
His reference to giving a punch in the nose to someone who insults his mother was a colloquial way of saying that deliberately mocking someone’s deepest loves is irresponsible. He probably could have been a little less casual in his choice of imagery, but Francis is hardly an apologist for Islamic radicalism.
As for the gay marriage and birth control remarks, what will emerge upon examination is that Francis was actually voicing the moderate Catholic position, not veering to the hard right.
What he said about priests being generous in individual cases was the tip of the hand.
In broad strokes, liberals want the Church to change its teaching on sexual morality and conservatives want it to be ever more aggressive in enforcing it. Moderates uphold the teaching, but want to be flexible and merciful in applying it to concrete situations.
In other words, nothing Francis said Friday night ultimately will change the big-picture perception of him as a compassionate centrist.
Second, media narratives are surprisingly durable once they’ve been set in stone, and often prove stubbornly resistant to correction.
By now, most media organizations have invested a good deal of their own credibility, not to mention a lot of money, building up the story of Francis as a maverick populist and reformer, and it would take a lot to convince them to let go.
It’s not clear that what we’ve seen this week, especially given that it happened half a world away in the Philippines, will do the trick.
Finally, while Francis may occasionally do things that challenge the narrative that has grown up around him, he also constantly delivers words and gestures that reinforce it.
Saturday offered a classic example, as the pontiff flew from Manila to Tacloban in the central Philippines to meet survivors and family members of the victims of the massive 2013 typhoon, one of the strongest storms ever recorded.
A less committed pontiff would never have made the trip.
A new typhoon, not quite as intense but still serious, was scheduled to hit the area while Francis was there, threatening not only his flight, but the stability of the stage where the pontiff would say Mass. Even veteran travelers in the area were saying they wouldn’t set out under those conditions.
Francis went anyway, donning the same yellow poncho upon arrival that hundreds of thousands of locals were wearing.
The pontiff had a homily prepared in English, which struck all the notes a visiting politician or statesman should: concern for the suffering, solidarity with the poor, a call to the international community to support reconstruction, and so on.
The thing is, however, Francis isn’t a politician or statesman, but a pastor, and so he utterly disregarded the text and spoke from the heart, off the cuff, in Spanish.
As my Crux colleague Inés San Martín, herself an Argentinian, said, “It doesn’t get more Bergoglio than that.”
(Jorge Mario Bergoglio is the given name of Pope Francis.)
His core message in the disaster zone was that he really, really wanted to come.
“When I saw this catastrophe from Rome, I felt that I had to be here,” Francis said. “I’m here to be with you.”
He insisted God was not absent amid all the heartache.
“Some of you might tell me, ‘Father, I’ve lost all hope, lost my home, my job, I’m ill. I’ve been disappointed by Jesus.’ I respect those feelings, but I see [Jesus] nailed to the cross and from there he doesn’t let us down,” he said.
He kept it brief, seemingly sensing that his presence and emotion were more important than any words.
“I don’t know what to say to you,” Francis told the crowd. “So many of you lost members of your family, so I remain silent and walk with you with my silent heart.”
In other words, after a day when some may have been reconsidering their infatuation with Francis, he served up a classic reminder of why they fell in love with him in the first place.
A pope never takes just one trip
If you look on the Vatican web site or at any of its official literature, you’ll find that Pope Francis is making only one Jan. 12-19 outing to Sri Lanka and the Philippines. In terms of how the experience is being perceived, however, there are actually multiple papal trips.
The filters people bring to something inevitably color the way they see it, which means that the take-away from any papal trip will be wildly different depending on the eye of the beholder.
In Sri Lanka, for instance, locals couldn’t help noticing that the key words the pope used — reconciliation, peace, unity, and healing — bore a strong similarity to the rhetoric that Sirisena, their new president, used on the campaign trail.
Some politicians and journalists in the country drew the conclusion that the main point of the trip was to offer an endorsement to the new government, a surmise reinforced by the fact that the Buddhist Sirisena told Francis he felt the pope’s presence offered him a “blessing.”
Others in Sri Lanka may conclude that Francis came primarily to strengthen ties with Buddhism, in one of just eight majority Buddhist nations in the world — and, again, the surprise temple visit will support that take-away.
For the Sri Lankan minority that’s ethnically Tamil and religiously Hindu, however, the indelible image of Francis sitting on a stage wearing a saffron robe, a prized symbol of reverence in their culture, the view may well be that he came to support their emancipation.
In the Philippines, the same diversity of perspectives applies.
For survivors and the families of victims of the 2013 typhoon, the fact that Francis chose to go to ground zero to express compassion will likely be the only thing they remember, especially since he told them that he started planning to visit the Philippines just days after the disaster because he was so moved.
In addition, the fact that he had to fight off another typhoon to get there, even wearing one of their cheap yellow ponchos to get through the day, will only strengthen their conviction.
On the other hand, if you’re one of the projected 6 million people, or more, who show up for the pontiff’s Mass on Sunday in a park in Manila, this trip isn’t just for victims of a natural disaster, but for all Filipinos everywhere, including the vast Filipino diaspora now living abroad and estimated at 10 million.
For those in the Philippines inclined to a more political interpretation, it’s possible that the trip they recall may be the one in which Aquino used the platform created by the pope’s presence to blast some of the country’s bishops.
Aquino had been threatened with excommunication in 2012 by the president of the country’s Catholic bishops’ conference for signing a controversial “Reproductive Health” bill into law, providing universal access to contraception, so the fact that he and some of the Filipino bishops don’t exactly see eye-to-eye wasn’t a surprise.
Many locals reacted negatively, however, to the idea that he addressed all that in public rather a private setting.
For members of the media, it’s possible that the trip they’ll remember, and report, will be framed largely as a stage setting for the pontiff’s comments on the Charlie Hebdo attacks, gay marriage, and birth control.
The reality is that the trip was all of these things, and more, but which aspect leaves the biggest imprint often says more about whoever’s looking at it than about the pope’s own agenda.