Building a cult of personality. That is the last thing Pope Francis is likely to have wanted included in his agenda for his visit to the Philippines. The Pope said that his visit to the Philippines is about the poor and the victims of the two recent calamities that devastated the Philippines. To further punctuate this point, His Holiness even made it clear that he wanted the identities of the people he will be sharing a meal with in Tacloban to be kept private.
Unfortunately, Filipinos make everything about personalities.
This kind of idolatry is evident not just in Philippine politics (where people trump ideas hands down) but in that uniquely-Pinoy style of the practice of Roman Catholicism.
Even in the long lead-up to the pontiff’s visit, Filipinos have taken every opportunity to show that they’ve already missed the point of this momentous event. The whole country was put on alert to the extent that normal activity in the country’s premiere megalopolis has been suspended to make way for this event on account of the security overkill and the work holiday declared to keep as many Filipinos as possible off the streets. Indeed, the recent Black Nazarene procession in Manila’s steaming Quiapo district which attracted hundreds of thousands of devotees is a preview of the sort of bizarre exuberance Filipinos apply to physical symbols of their faith.
The Philippines’ traditional media and the cliques of social media “experts” in its ironic orbit have been frenzied for days fielding all sorts of messages to their respective audiences. And where there is a media frenzy, there are Filipino politicians. Already, tarpauline and signage businesses are making a killing producing propaganda material for politicians and government officials out to make their mark in this occasion. Included in these stimuli some businesses are enjoying is a sudden demand for adult diapers thanks to a directive issued by Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) Chairman Francis Tolentino that all traffic officers use them over the duration of the papal visit.
Suffice to say, despite being derided as epal (“grandstanders”) by the Philippines’ intelligentsia classes, the masses who vastly outnumber members of these chattering cliques will likely see no issues in their leaders’ bald displays of presumptuousness. Such behaviours are even rewarded. Indeed, Australia’s ABC News observed, “[the] people of the Philippines deserve an award for their enthusiasm ahead of Pope Francis’ visit to the country on Thursday.”
Nonetheless, the power of religion to move people into stampedes remains evident. The challenge, of course, remains, and the key question here is this: What sort of stampede will Pope Francis induce when he graces the Philippines this year? The Black Nazarene routinely projects a mere statue’s awesome power over its flock. But to the question of whether this power goes into something productive or simply dissipates into Manila’s corrosive atmosphere when the festival is over is a confronting one as there seems to be no evidence to attest to the earlier. Certainly, Pope Francis’s visit will move an even bigger throng. Hopefully he does, otherwise it will be a bit of an embarrassment to see a local statue attracting a crowd bigger than what Saint Peter’s heir could. But the other important question we need to answer convincingly is what we foresee to be the lasting legacy of His Holiness’s visit.
The example Pope Francis has consistently conveyed to Catholics since his ascent to power is simplicity and humility. And this is something his official host in the Philippines, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, also deeply embodies as evident in his own personal lifestyle and manner.
Will Filipinos get that message and embrace the values espoused by both of these great men?
That remains to be seen. Interestingly enough, the Pope’s visit comes in the heels of a grandiose “royal wedding” between Filipino showbiz starlets Dingdong Dantes and Marian Rivera — a huge media event that wowed beyond words the very throngs of Filipinos the Pope and the Cardinal hope to deliver their message to. Ironic.
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