The Gift of Presence

The Gifts of Pope Francis to the Philippines:[1]

Reflections on his visit last January 2015 (a two-part series)

As the U.S. gears up for the Pope’s visit later this month, I find myself going back to earlier this year when Pope Francis visited the Philippines. I was lucky enough to have been in Manila during that time and to be caught up in the wave of Lolo Kiko’s visit.[2] The last time a Pope visited the Philippines was in 1996 when John Paul II held World Youth Day in Manila. At that gathering, around five million people attended the closing mass. It was considered the largest papal crowd in history; that is, until the visit of Pope Francis this past January where an estimated six million people came for his final mass.

An Aerial View of Pope Francis’ closing mass at Rizal Park, Manila, Philippines

To be honest, it is hard for me to put into words what I, and many others, experienced during that time. Whenever I talk about it, I am led to a welling of emotion and a desire to revert to silence in the realization that the experience was too profound to be captured by words. And yet words are necessary so that the experience can be processed and its depth and wisdom shared with others. And so in “fear and trembling,” in the face of the limitations of my prose and reflections, I write of the Pope’s visit to the Philippines and what I believe were some of the gifts he bestowed on us.

The Gift of Presence: “I am here to be with you”

During Pope Francis’ trip to the Philippines, he visited Tacloban, one of the cities hardest hit by Typhoon Haiyan (local name: Yolanda) in 2013. Despite the threat of a storm that day that led him to cut his visit short, he insisted that he wanted to be there. During his homily, it became clear why he chose to come to the Philippines. He said, “When I saw from Rome the catastrophe, I felt that I had to be here and on those very days I decided to come here. I am here to be with you. A little bit late, I have to say, but I am here.”

Pope Francis YolandaWith such simple words, many of us were moved to tears, humbled by such a gesture that the Pope wanted to be with us, to share in that moment of grief and loss. I wondered how such words and gestures had a profound impact on all of us that day. Here, I come to the first gift he gave us, the gift of presence: of that willingness to be with us in the midst of our deepest suffering.

The Pope ditched his prepared speech in English and decided to speak in his Native Spanish so he could speak from the heart. Many felt the difference in his mannerism as he switched into Spanish. He was more animated, more relaxed, and more authentic in that moment. He also chose not to speak about climate change which some were expecting during his visit nor did he try to explain away suffering or try to make sense of it. He said instead, “So many of you have lost everything. I don’t know what to say to you…All I can do is keep silent. And I walk with you all with my silent heart.” In so doing, he became as the Good Shepherd who knew exactly what his flock needed and spoke what the survivors needed to hear: that he was there and that Christ was there for them; that they are not alone and that they and their suffering mattered.

This, I believe, was the gift of his presence to them; that telling them that he needed to be there told them that they mattered and are worthy of time and attention, and they are not invisible. I think of the import of this gesture for a people that have experienced being “non-persons.” For those who might have felt abandoned by the inaction of the government during that time of crisis, or those who felt forgotten after the initial shock and interest wore off, or those who just felt isolated, voiceless and powerless, daunted by the loss and destruction around them, his powerful gesture of comfort and accompaniment was like a breath of new life for them. They were never alone, abandoned or forgotten.

images-2And the fact that it was the Pope, the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, was the one in their presence, lifted them up even more. This person, who in their eyes is of the “highest rank in the Church,” noticed them who were invisible and lowly. But more than that, he reminded them of the Christ who accompanies us in our deepest suffering, of a God who is God-with-us, as he says we have a Lord who is capable of crying with us, capable of walking with us, in the most difficult moments of life … Christ responds from His heart upon the cross….He understands us because He underwent all the trials that we, that you, have experienced.”  Link to video of his homily is here.

All of us who watched and heard that speech were humbled and glorified at the same time. Our tears fell as we felt so loved and the heaviness of our burdens were swept away even for just that moment. In wonder and awe, we asked how we could matter so much to this Pope, and in that question he reminded us even more of the unconditional love of God, of what John Shea describes as the lavishness and extravagance of God’s grace. In that simple gesture of presence and silent communion, Pope Francis gave us a true encounter with the God of love and infinite mercy. Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle explained, people who saw the pope shed tears of joy and consolation because they realize that they “matter and [are] considered important.”

TweetsThe only way I could begin to describe this experience of joy and consolation that Cardinal Tagle describes is with an excerpt from a poem by John Shea, a creative re-imagining of Luke 14:15-24 The Parable of the Great Banquet. In that parable, those who were invited chose not to come so the host invites those in the streets and alleys instead – the “poor, crippled, the blind and the lame.” In John Shea’s poem, he describes how such an invitation must have felt to these forgotten ones in society. He writes:

And somewhere amid the talk of weather and crops and taxes came a mercy as sustaining as bread, as intoxicating as wine. They felt like the beauty of flowers that do not toil and the grace of the birds who ride the wind without the strain of their wings…[3]

In this beautiful imagery, a sense of the beauty, dignity and worth of persons is evoked as well as a sense of ease and preciousness of being recognized and valued for oneself. This was an experience of salvation and a glimpse into the gaze of God who sees beauty in all creation. This was the gift of presence that Pope Francis gave us.

It was symbolic that this message was given during the Eucharist for it was a reminder to us all of the real presence of Christ among us and the call to make real such compassionate presence in the Church and in the world today.   This is part of what it means to be a church of mercy, a call that many Latin American liberation theologians and the Pope have made. Jon Sobrino describes it as a “Samaritan church decentered by mercy” where our place is “with the wounded one lying in the ditch along the roadside… The place of the church is with the ‘other,’ and with the most radical otherness of that other – his[/her] suffering…”[3]

In Pope Francis’ choice to come to the Philippines and to Tacloban, in his own words of “needing to be with us,” he exemplified what this church of mercy looks like, and we, who were recipients of such mercy, felt it as a blessing and a beatitude that moved us to tears.

We see this gift of presence again, as he prepares to come to the U.S. He held a virtual audience with some high school students, with immigrants, and with homeless women and men. He listened to their stories, and having heard the story of a young girl who was bullied due to a rare skin condition and found comfort in music, he asked her to sing. (See video here)

If only we could follow his example of the gift of presence: of choosing to walk and identify with those who suffer, of learning to become a silent yet compassionate presence, a witness and companion to survivors of death and destruction and in such presence be allowed to heal and become whole again – then his gift to the Philippines becomes a gift to the whole Church and to the world.

[1]This is a play on a title of a song after the People Power Revolution of 1986 “Handog ng Pilipino sa Mundo” (The gift of the Filipino people to the world) that focused on our nonviolent revolution as an example for the world.

[2] Kiko, in the Tagalog language, is a diminutive of “Francisco” that expresses familiarity and affection while lolo means grandfather. In fact, Pope Francis spoke about being called Lolo Kiko and the importance of valuing our elderly. See:

[3] John Shea, Stories of Faith (Chicago, IL: Thomas Moore Press, 1980).

[4] “Jon Sobrino, SJ, “The Samaritan Church and the Principle of Mercy,” The Principle of mercy: Taking the Crucified People from the Cross (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 21.

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