Flawed Headcounts

by Juan L. Mercado

Come Tuesday, the first-ever Latin American pontiff will launch, in Brazil , the 14th World Youth Day. “WFDRio2013”, will  run until  Sunday in Rio de Janeiro. Pope Francis  will  offer mass and interact with  youngsters from Slovakia , the Philippines to Indonesia against the backdrop of “Christ the  Redeemer” statue towering on Sugarloaf  Mountain.

In  January 1995, four million attended WFD mass at the Luneta, offered by  John Paul II.  He will be canonized as saint December 8  with Blessed John XXIII. Some Filipinos itch to compare Manila’s “world record” with the 2013 WYD rites.

Six of 10 pilgrims, now cascading Copacabana environs, are between 19 to 34 years of age.  Still some pontiffs establish a livelier bond with youth than others. John Paul II  did.  Rio will be “the biggest Catholic blowout of the early 21st century.” There,  Francis wants to inspire a more missionary church. His ability to galvanize young apostles will be critical. But headcounts can mislead.  Latin America is not 21 Philippines in Catholic population.

In three months, Francis  has been  stamped  as “pope of the poor.” After Rio, will Francis emerge as  “pope of the young”?, asks the hardnosed   Vatican journalist  John Allen, Jr.  “Triumph is  hardly a foregone conclusion, given multiple challenges.”

Start with “Pink Tide”. In 14 Latin American countries, left-leaning parties  are in power. They splice managed capitalism with varying policies women issues, reproductive heath  and gay rights. Can the church carve constructive relations with these governments? Or will ties  be ruptured by disputes?

Francis clashed with Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner, especially over gay marriage. In Brazil, Dilma Rousseff was elected, despite opposition by Catholic bishops that she would legalize abortion. The Guarulhos diocese tagged Rousseff as the “candidate of death”.  

Didn’t the Filipino bishops of Bacolod and Lipa clone Guarulhos in assailing those who voted for Reproductive Health bill  as “Team Patay”?  They, too, were trashed.  More important,  can  Filipino prelates learn from Latin America?

Rousseff last year adopted a controversial national registry of pregnancies. Pro-choice groups strafed her, claiming  it defines a fetus as a person. Hold it.  Isn’t  that precisely the issue that the Philippine Supreme Court  grapples  with in challenges to implementing the Reproductive Health Law? 

There’s the Evangelical and Pentecostal “tsunami” meanwhile.  In  the late 20th century,  Latin America morphed from Catholic region into a competitive religious marketplace. At it’s peak,  some 8,000 Catholics bailed out daily into various Protestant movements.

Yet, Catholics, Evangelicals and Pentecostals have common interests, especially in secularism’s corrosive inroads.   In Brazil,  growth of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism stalled. In contrast, the most rapidly expanding religious cohort in the country is the “nones,” i.e., Brazilians who say they have no religious affiliation at all.

“Will  Francis be able to reorient ecumenical outreach toward the most consequential form of non-Catholic Christianity in the world today?. (That’d) be a key measuring stick for the success of his papacy.”

“Learning a new language” is the third challenge.   In  Latin America,  the Church  can no longer speak as the quasi-official arbiter of public morality. On a complex religious landscape, it is  now one actor among many, although it counts a substantial bloc of the population.

Filipino prelates like Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle to Archbishop Antonio Ledesma insist  “the authority of establishment, must give way to the authority of witness” . That proflies Jorge  Cardinal Bergoglio of  Buenos Aires. He  was among pioneers in navigating this transition. He positioned his church “as a credible social force”.

How?. Not by magisterial pronouncements but in ministering to poorest. He turned over his cardinal’s palace for use as a hospice by a religious nursing order. He took the bus and lived in a down apartment.  Now, Francis  faces the task of “scaling up” this approach across the continent. Rio could be his breakout performance.

Early images of  Francis papacy have been compelling.  He spurned sprawling papal apartments and lodged  in Spartan Vatican guesthouse Casa Santa Marta.  He drives through St. Peter’s Square, to greet people,  in an open-topped Jeep instead of the bulletproof bubble.

Priests shouldn’t drive fancy cars, he said mid July.   “It hurts me when I see a priest or nun with the latest-model car.   A car is necessary to do a lot of work, but, please, choose a more humble one. If you like the fancy one,  think about how many children are dying of hunger in the world.”

After his speech, Francis visited the Vatican garage to inspect his own fleet, according to The Associated Press. He  arrived at, Castel Gandolfo, in a simple Ford Focus —-   a far cry from luxury cars of his predecessor:  a custom-made Renault, a BMW X5, or a Mercedes. “Now, here’s a Pope who practices what he preaches”, wrote Yasmin Hatz of Huffington Post.

Example is contagious.  A priest in Colombia answered the Pope’s call.  He  planned to sell his white Mercedes-Benz E200 convertible,  given to him as a gift from his four brothers. “I can ride a  bicycle,” he said.

In Rio, there is media and the message. Since mid-March, the usual stream of Vatican leaks, in  Italian media,  has largely dried up. Francis plays his cards close to the vest in his insistence on the church going into the streets.  “This pope,” often veers off-script.  Will  he avoid blurring on his own message during the biggest public outing of his young papacy?  Abangan, Filipinos would say.

(Email: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com)

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