Before a record crowd of between six and seven million people, Pope Francis entrusted a double mission to the Philippine Church at his last public mass in this country on Sunday, January 18, that included both a domestic and an Asian component.
At the domestic level he encouraged them to work for justice, peace, rights and to protect the family, safeguard creation and to eliminate poverty and corruption in this land of 100 million people where, as he said two days ago, there are 'scandalous' inequalities and injustices.
Pope Francis invited the Filipino Church to take up this double mission in his homily at the multilingual mass, with awesome music and singing, in Manila’s Rizal Park, as the rain poured down on the largest crowd ever to participate in a papal mass.
Exactly twenty years ago to the date, John Paul II presided over the closing mass for World Youth Day at which some 4 million Filipinos and people from most countries of the world participated. This time, however, that number was surpassed by the Filipinos alone in an extraordinarily moving expression of faith in the presence of Papa Francisco, Pope Francis, whose simplicity, humility, compassion and love for the poor has captivated their hearts and inspires them.
This record attendance at the mass is even more striking when one considers that all these people stood under the rain for many hours, most of them wearing the cheap, yellow, plastic poncho like the one the Pope had worn on the previous day when he celebrated mass for the survivors of Super-typhoon Haiyan, and which he also wore today as he drove among them in a Jeepney, made here in the Philippines for him. Their presence in such great numbers reflects the steadfast faith of Filipino Catholics, who make up 80 percent of the population of this country. More than 50 percent of them are poor people, but they are rich in faith and good humor.
Sunday, January 18, was the feast of the Santo Nino (The Holy Child), and his image was enthroned near the altar before mass. The devotion to the Santo Nino is the oldest and one of the most popular in the Philippines. Its origins go back to time when Miguel Lopez Legazpi landed on the island of Cebu in 1565 and one of his soldiers found an image of the Child Jesus. It is believed to be the same statue Magellan, the Portuguese explorer, had given to the wife of the chieftain of the island after her baptism. For Filipino Catholics the Santo Nino represents a God who is accessible and can be approached without fear. Very many of them brought colorful images of the Santo Nino to the mass and held them high for the Pope to bless as he drove among them.
Ever a strong defender of popular devotion such as this, Francis celebrated the mass of the Santo Nino “with special joy” - his words - and centered his homily on that image of the Holy Child Jesus that “accompanied the spread of the Gospel in this country from the beginning” and “continues to remind us of the link between God’s Kingdom and the mystery of spiritual childhood”.
The Santo Nino, he said, “reminds us of our deepest identity”, namely “that all of us are God’s children, members of God’s family”. The Filipinos showed they understood this by the way they rallied to the assistance of “our brothers and sisters affected by the typhoon”, he declared.
Ever since his arrival in Manila on Jan. 15, Francis has focused on the domestic mission: the urgent need to work for social justice and human dignity and to combat poverty. Today at mass he reminded Filipinos that God “chose each of us to be witnesses of his truth and his justice in this world.” In earlier talks he had emphasized the urgent need to care for creation in this land that is hit by at least 20 typhoons a year as well as earthquakes, and suffers from the plunder of its natural resources. He returned to this subject again in his homily, reminding them that “God created the world as a beautiful garden and asked us to care for it” but “through sin, man has disfigured the that natural beauty; through sin man has also destroyed the unity and beauty of our human family, creating social structures which perpetuate poverty, ignorance and corruption.”
Speaking in English, Pope Francis went onto tell the millions present at the mass and the far bigger audience following it on TV (all the major channels gave 24 hour coverage to his visit) that “when we see the troubles, difficulties and wrongs all around us, we are tempted to give up”. And when faced with a variety of distractions, “we forget to remain focused on the things that really matter. We forget to remain, at heart, children of God”. That is why the message of the Santo Nino is so important, he stated: “He reminds us of our deepest identity, of what we are called to be as God’s family.”
The Santo Nino, the Protector of the Philippines, he said, “reminds us that this identity must be protected”, just as the Christ Child needed to be protected when he was born into this world, into a family. “He reminds us of the importance of protecting our families, and those larger families which are the Church, God’s family, and the world, our human family.”
He said the family often needs to be protected today “against insidious attacks and programs contrary to all that we hold true and sacred, all that is most beautiful and noble in our culture”. Likewise, children need to be protected, welcomed and cherished, and young people need to be cared for, so that they are not “robbed of hope and condemned to life on the streets”. All this is part of the domestic mission that Francis gave them.
He concluded his homily by commending all Filipinos to the Santo Nino, and praying that the Christ child would enable them “to work together, protecting one another, beginning with your families and communities, in building a world of justice, integrity and peace”. He prayed too that the Santo Nino would continue to bless this country and “sustain” its Christians “in their vocations to be witnesses and missionaries of the joy of the Gospel, in Asia and in the wider world”.
At the end of the Eucharistic celebration, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, who had concelebrated the mass with Francis, invited all present to light candles, and to sing the 1995 World Youth Day song, “Tell the world of His Love”, as Pope Francis sent them out on mission, to bring the light of the Gospel to their families, communities and the wider world.
After mass, responding to the great demand of the crowd, who waved white scarves and chanted ‘Papa Francisco’, the Argentine Pope again drove among them in the Jeepney, wearing his yellow plastic poncho, waving to the vast crowd and kissing and blessing children.
Thus ended a memorable day that had started this morning with a visit to the 400 year-old the Pontifical and Royal University of St. Thomas, the oldest and biggest university of its kind in Asia, which is run by the Dominicans.
Immediately afterwards Francis had a ninety minute encounter with 30,000 young Filipinos, in the university grounds; they came from every diocese in the country, and danced and cheered enthusiastically when he came among them.
Francis began that encounter on a sad note, by inviting them to join him in prayer for Kristel, a 27 year-old Filipina young woman who was killed during the mass in Tacloban, last Friday. A piece of scaffolding fell and hit her. She had been involved in preparations for the mass, and was a volunteer with Catholic Relief services. She was the only child of her parents. Her mother works in Hong Kong, and Francis tried but failed to contact her by phone. He did however meet the girl’s father who lives in Manila and had a twenty minute meeting with him.
After the prayer for Kristel, the encounter with the young people followed the original program with singing, testimonies from young people, including street children, who asked questions. It was an inspiring event. Francis, for the third time in this visit, he again abandoned his prepared text, and spoke from the heart, in Spanish. He had a Vatican monsignor translate it into English.
When the meeting ended, Francis returned to the nuntiature and later that afternoon drove in the jeepney to Rizal Park. Everywhere he went, the Filipinos turned out in great numbers to cheer him. They had grown to love him even before he came, but now that love is much deeper after they have seen him in person. And they call him “Lolo Kiko”, a name of endearment meaning “ Grandfather Francisco”.
With the celebration of mass at Rizal Park, Pope Francis concluded the public part of his visit to the Philippines, which has proved to be a stunningly successful one. His visit here showed for the third successive time – after Korea and Sri Lanka – that the style of this Jesuit Pope and the substance of his message, both verbal and non, connects extraordinarily well with Asian audiences. He has shown his ability to reach people beyond religious, ethnic and cultural barriers. Asians like this singer, but they also like his song.
Tomorrow morning, January 19, Francis will take a Philippine Airlines flight back to Rome, and is expected to give another press conference on the 14 hour flight home. Stay tuned.