Today you arrive in Manila.
Unlike Sri Lanka, there will be no elephants dressed in fancy garb to welcome you on our streets.
But I hear the President himself is set to welcome you at the airport, refusing as you have to do a State Dinner at Malacañang Palace. While he might invoke his Catholic upbringing, there have been many instances when he seemed to lack compassion and kindness, when often that is what this struggling and exhausted nation needs.
You might also meet his more famous sister. She will invoke her Catholic upbringing as well. But she has also single-handedly created a celebrity culture in this country that is about all things superficial, and she has made a career out of a shameless display of her wealth.
You will meet, too, the every-politician. In this country, religion can be a matter of convenience – if it can win them elections they will wear their Catholicism on their sleeve. It is not a measure of how well they serve the people.
Today you arrive in Manila and all the streets you pass will have been cleared of dirt and debris. You will see a Manila and later a Leyte Province that have no semblance of the cities we live in dangerously every day. That can only be a measure of how well our leaders have been able to hide what ails this nation. It’s a measure of how well they have silenced the people.
Celebration NOT allowed
Speaking of the people, there are many who would have wanted to see you in the flesh, dear Pope Francis. But many have been discouraged by the words that we have heard from our government.
I imagine that having you here could’ve meant a wonderful street celebration, a festival on the streets, with music and laughter. With traffic closed, we are in for long walks that we would not mind at all because it leads to seeing you, but also because we are used to religious fiestas that interweave faith with joy, religion with enjoyment.
But alas, this government has spoken of your visit like it is not one that is about enjoyment or joy. What they have done is give us a set of rules that remind us of how un-free we are to celebrate your presence.
Bags and umbrellas are not allowed at the park. We are told to bring raincoats or hats for the rain, fans for the heat. If we are to carry bags, these need to be transparent so that the world might see what it contains. We are told to bring food and drinks – because none will be sold on the path that leads to you – and to put these in transparent bags as well.
We have seen the barricades that will keep people from walking freely on the streets that lead to you. These are barricades akin to keeping workers in one line, so that they might be checked before they enter their factory’s premises.
In the news it was mentioned that people who luckily live where your entourage and motorcade might pass, will be prohibited from viewing you through second floor windows and balconies of their homes. That is to disallow us to do what we want to within our own private homes.
(In)security becomes us
Security measures will be strictly imposed, we are told by the government. And there is reason to feel like this is no religious celebration.
Big words like honor are being dangled in front of our faces. The Interior Secretary has said that this is about your security dear Pope Francis, as it is about “our own security, and our country’s face and honor. I imagine you will meet this man, too, the Interior Secretary, I mean. Know that he was in Leyte when Yolanda hit, and that he was one of government personalities whose failure to care for the survivors of the storm is now legend.
We are being implored to see ourselves not as just citizens of nation who have love for you, dear Pope Francis. The government implores us to be hosts to your visit, at the same time that we exercise restraint.
It is an affront to the celebratory nature of religion as we practice it in this country. We are being told to control how we might react to your presence. We are being told that we have no freedom to get excited, and to imagine your arrival as a celebration of faith. Now we are all bound to the government’s notions of our misbehaving nature, and our lack of control.
But such is the nature of our practice of Catholicism in this country, dear Pope Francis, and it is in all our religious feasts and festivals. It is even in my memories of Sundays spent in Sto. Domingo Church, where the solemnity of hearing Mass is interwoven with the celebratory spirit outside, with balloons and street musicians, toys and religious memorabilia and icons for sale, the smells of Sunday street food wafting through the air.
This is how we celebrate even just our Sundays in church. Imagine what kind of joy we might bring as a people in celebration of your presence. But if government would have its way, we should be nothing but robots.
The rains over Leyte
The news just announced is that in Leyte where you will be going, the rains have started to fall.
And yet instead of talking about its effect on a populace that fears the rains, instead of talking about how to make sure that those who have survived Yolanda are able to deal better and better with every storm that comes, the news is only filled with concern for your visit.
The rains hamper preparations for The Pope’s visit, our headlines read, our reporters say.
It is the state of nation, and media as we know it. Where your visit has become the excuse not to speak about the things that matter, where you as persona has become a way to distract from the real reasons why you are here. Where we as a people are being controlled in the name of security, our practice of our faith sacrificed in the name of security.
Your arrival has become a time of fear for us. I think even you, dear Pope Francis, would find that to be a sad sad thing.
*Published in The Manila Times, 15 January 2015.