Papal Visit 2015: What it means for Filipinos

by Ira Pedrasa,

Posted at Nov 17 2014 04:20 PM | Updated as of Nov 18 2014 03:39 AM

Pope Francis gives a thumbs-up during one of his open-air general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. Photo by Andreas Solaro, AFP

How the Catholic church's 'conservative rock star' is making his presence felt in the Philippines

MANILA - Consider this irony: many have found reason to celebrate Pope Francis’ leadership which has rejuvenated the Roman Catholic community worldwide, and yet he has not even changed one archaic church doctrine.

Analysts believe Pope Francis, or Jorge Mario Bergoglio, will not overturn church policies, but he has one “secret” that has charmed the secular world into calling him a rock star.

In an interview with, Father Catalino Arevalo believes Pope Francis will not change church doctrines now or in the future. This means, for example, that gay marriages are totally out of the picture.

“He will not [change Catholic doctrines], he’s a conservative theologian.”

Father Catalino Arevalo believes Pope Francis remains a conservative theologian. Photo by Ira Pedrasa. ABS-CBN News

Arevalo, like Pope Francis, is a theologian and belongs to the Jesuits, which, by Catholic church standards, is one of the most forward-thinking religious orders. Arevalo is widely recognized as the dean of Catholic theologians in the Philippines and is mentor to the likes of Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle.

“Francis brings his own personal style, lifestyle…They see a guy here who loves everybody. And he really wants to be with people, wants to love the people. That’s the secret of Francis,” he said.

He noted it’s not important to the Catholic church’s highest leader what one’s leanings are. “He’s not a conservative nor a progressive, as Jesus Christ was neither conservative nor progressive.”

What he is, instead, is good news, Arevalo said.


Sister Mary John Mananzan agrees. “In doctrine, Pope Francis is very orthodox, he has not said anything that was controversial in doctrine. But where I find him really, really radical is in the way he lives the gospel.”

Sister Mary John Mananzan believes Pope Francis has a heart "that wants to be open." Photo by Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Mananzan served as president of St. Scholastica's College for six years, prioress of the Missionary Benedictine Sisters in the Manila Priory for eight years, and national chairperson of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines for four.

Quoting the British Catholic newspaper, The Tablet, Arevalo said Pope Francis is not the type to wag his finger at those who do not follow the doctrines of the church.
Instead, he will put an arm around his or her shoulder, and then listen and understand.

“He will be true to himself. He will remain conservative, doctrinally, but the main thing about him is a great heart: a heart that’s open, that wants to be open,” he said.

Among the acts that have awed even the non-religious are: Francis embracing an Italian whose entire body was terribly scarred by a genetic disorder; Francis washing the feet of 12 prisoners who included Muslims and women; and Francis allowing a boy who wandered on stage sit on the Papal chair.


Pope Francis embraces a follower in one of Rome's parishes. Photo by Osservatore Romano, AFP

Will we see a Francis-led Catholic church embrace gay unions? No, according to analysts interviewed by

“The church remains, retains that gay marriage is not acceptable, even by natural law or the gospel. But we should not show any despising or condemnation of gay people. That’s what Francis said,” Arevalo said.
He said each one has his or her own way of sinning. “In other words, the sin remains as far as the church is concerned: gay marriage, gay activities are not allowed in the gospel… but people who are gay and are trying to please God as much as they can, then welcome them, don’t condemn them.”

Red Macalalad, community relations officer of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in Quezon City, said the recent Synod is a step forward for the Catholic church. MCC is not part of the Catholic church, but has it its own denomination under the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. It is an LGBT-affirming church that has administered gay unions, weddings, or rituals.

Macalalad is referring to the Synod of Bishops on the Family, a two-week summit of Catholic bishops held in Rome last month. More than 200 bishops from around the world discussed a draft document that included a topic on "Welcoming Homosexual Persons," which could lead to accepting the gay community in the future.

However, the call to "accept and value" homosexuals in the draft report was not supported by two-thirds of the bishops. Instead, the final report, which will still be debated in the years to come, only said anti-gay discrimination is "to be avoided.”

Pope Francis presides over the Synod, where Cardinal Tagle (left) was one of the leaders. Photo by Andreas Solaro, AFP

As expected, the topic pitted conservatives on one side and liberals on the other.

“It feels like you (Church) are accepting us or offering us a fraternal space because we offer gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community. So it’s like me, saying, na matalino ka naman, so I’ll accept you. Can’t we accept people just because they are people?” Macalalad stressed.

He said the Church is obviously, again, struggling with its doctrines. He added this is why a lot of Filipinos go to alternative churches such as the MCC. Some churches, he said, are not safe spaces for LGBTs.

“If a person does not feel comfortable in a church setting, or in the community church where he belongs. He is not comfortable with himself where there is a threat to his reputation, a threat he feels that when coming out, puwede siyang ma-kick-out, maalis sa kanyang ministry, or kutyain,” he said.


Pope Francis is warmly welcomed by the crowd at the Vatican. Photo by Gabriel Bouys, AFP

Macalalad feels, however, that the Pope has clearly showed his openness and compassion.

“Pero kasi, para sa akin, alam mo, pinag-iisipan ko siya, si Pope Francis nag-come-out… nag-come-out siya for the love of LGBTs… Kung ang kakayahan ng isang tao ay sabihin na, well, my expression of love is not to judge other people, to welcome them, to make them comfortable in our space, to trigger our churches to rethink how our LGBTs are faring in our churches. If that is his expression of coming out for his love of other people, that is a strong teaching, that is very meaningful,” Macalalad said.

Arevalo said it helps that the Filipino Catholic church is a “human” church, anchored firmly on the attitudes of the new Pope.

He noted that one-third of the entire Catholic church in the world do not even allow the Catholic faithful to talk to a gay person. But in the Philippines, the people are more accepting, he said.

“We are more human. Because Western culture has become 'dishuman.' It has, as Francis says, in Western culture, the first value is money, money, money. Everything is judgmental. If it will make money, it is moral. If it doesn’t make money, it is bad. That’s the Western culture. That’s what Francis has been saying. It is a worship of money in the Western culture that is inhuman, dishuman, and dehumanizing,” he said.

Arevalo also cited Pope Francis’ famous quote in 2013 on his attitude towards homosexuals: “Who am I to judge?”

Pope Francis becomes the first pontiff to grace the cover of the iconic rock magazine, Rolling Stone. Photo by Michael Thurston, AFP

Such attitude was present when Francis allowed an Australian gay couple to pitch for gay unions at the Synod of Bishops on the Family last month, Arevalo said. He also took note of the story of Pope Francis phoning a remarried Catholic woman in Argentina that she could “safely receive communion.”

A draft in the Synod of Bishops on the Family report was also conciliatory in tone towards Catholics who have divorced and remarried without their first marriage getting annulled by the church. This, however, also did not get majority backing at the Synod.

“Is the sacrament [of communion] a reward for virtue? Or is it a health for those who are trying to be better? What’s your attitude towards the sacrament? Now if your attitude is that you wrought a finger from the very beginning, the sacrament is a reward for virtue. But if your attitude is given to us, so that by it we are able to live better lives, then we would be given the strength to live better lives. So it’s a basic attitude. That’s Francis not just [attracting] the church but the secular world.”


Pope Franics has lunch with the poor in a village in southern Italy. Photo by Osservatore Romano, AFP

Arevalo admits the interest about Pope Francis is partly a creation of media, which may not be entirely accurate. “Partly, the media created him. And partly, the media’s creation of him is not correct. Because they judged him from showbiz secular standards. So he is a creature of the media in many ways, and much of what is projected is not correct,” he said.

Mananzan explained that Pope Francis comes from the Third World and thus understands the compassion from and for Third World nations. This is where his mercy – correctly portrayed by the media – came from, she said.

“He was conceived theologically, in the belly of liberation theology. He may not even say that I am a liberation theologian pero ‘yun ang womb na pinanganakan sa iyo, so you cannot but take in as osmosis lahat ng values ng liberation theology, kaya malapit na malapit siya sa tao,” she said.

Mananzan believes the images of Pope Francis that have been emphasized by the media were not planned since they come from a spontaneous show of mercy.


Devout Catholics place the sign of the cross on their foreheads during Ash Wednesday. Photo by Jay Directo, AFP

Pope Francis’ leadership has also created a ripple effect in many of the Catholic faithful.
Mananzan, for instance, said she has always been happy as a nun, but was previously “uneasy” being a Catholic.

“I have to apologize about many things: apologize for the sexual harassments of priests, I have to apologize about the narrow-mindedness of the clergy about the conditions of people they consider living in sin. ‘Di ba? And yung kanilang… paranoid na reaction to the RH Bill.”

Pope Francis’ leadership, however, has changed her, said Mananzan, who admits to being a big fan of the Pope. She said she has even created a “gospel” according to Pope Francis.

“Pero ngayon, I’m at ease being a Catholic knowing that all of us can be like Pope Francis because he is not doing anything special. He is just putting the miracle of normalcy into the Vatican. Kasi noon, puro seremonyas ang pagiging Pope. E sa kanya, wala siyang seremonyas.”


When it comes to reproductive health, the Catholic church does not allow contraceptives “because it has always held that sexual activity must be open to life,” Arevalo said.

Pope Francis has not made any direct pronouncements on this issue, except to say that he is against abortion.

Nevertheless, Catholic churches in some countries have been lenient when it comes to this topic, he said.

In fact, it’s a big church-state conflict in only a few countries, and this includes the Philippines . Some bishops, for instance, even wanted to excommunicate President Benigno Aquino III for supporting the Reproductive Health Bill.

What does the Pope say on this matter?

Arevalo said: “He will not change that [stand against contraceptives]. He said it himself that I’m a Catholic and I follow the teachings of the Church.”

However, Pope Francis accepts those who favor contraceptives and the like since “the person is still on his way to the full acceptance of the Christian teaching.”

“So, he will not change, but he will be merciful and kind to the people who cannot keep the law,” Arevalo added.

Activists supporting the Reproductive Health Law hold a vigil when the Supreme Court suspended its implementation in 2013. Photo by Noel Celis, AFP

Mananzan, the chair emeritus of women’s group Gabriela, said the debate about the Reproductive Health Bill does not just involve Catholics and the church as an institution.
“I cannot say that it is intrinsically evil. If it is, there should be no exception… Like murder, [the exception is] self-defense… What I mean is, there are already exceptions [on the rules on reproductive health],” she said.

“Tinitignan ko lang yung mga seamen natin, they go all around the world. You cannot say they are chased the whole time. Pag dating nila dito, they will have sex with their wives, anong protection ng wife nila? May mga ganung circumstances,” she said.


Despite the strong impact of Pope Francis’ compassionate approach, he has his shortcomings, said Mananzan, citing as an example Pope Francis’ conservative grasp of the struggle of women.

“The Pope is not perfect. It’s not as if wala siyang kakulangan… Kulang pa siya sa real grasp sa struggle of women. Although he speaks very highly of women. He even said that what is needed is a new theology of women,” she said.

She noted Pope Francis once condemned the feminist ideology as demonic. But Mananzan said this reasoning is due to the Pope’s exposure to Western ideas on feminism.

A nun kisses the hand of Pope Francis upon his arrival to Rome's Basilica di Santa Maria. Photo by Filippo Monteforte, AFP

“I understand that, kasi ang kanyang contact ay yung Western type, marami namang klaseng feminism. Ang nasagap lang niya ‘yung tinatawag nating radical feminism, anti-ganito, anti-like that, very angry. Hindi naman tayo ganoon. Ibig ko sabihin, kailangang makinig rin siya siguro sa mga women of the Third World,” Mananzan said.

Pope Francis has also closed his doors to women priests.

Arevalo said the Pope wants greater roles for women, but “the question is what will that greater role be? He has brought a lot of women to the Vatican congregations.”

He noted Francis may be more open to ordaining married men. He said the prohibition is not in the divine laws, but a part of human laws.

“Now whether Francis will do it or not, I don’t know. That’s why he has advisers from all over the world. But the ordination of married men is not against the church. As a matter of fact, there are many married men who are functioning as priests. Those who come from the Anglican Church can join the Catholic church. They are allowed to keep their wives, they are allowed to keep their married lives while they function as priests,” Arevalo said.


Pope Francis himself admits he is a sinner, which makes his humanity more attractive, Mananzan said. “He does not only say: love the sinner [and not the sin], he is identifying himself as a sinner.”

What Pope Francis wants is a healing church, where all sinners are healed and not condemned, she said.

Nonetheless, Pope Francis is also one to put his foot down – especially against those who use the Church as a means to enrich themselves or violate the rights of others, she said.

Pope Francis displays a serious side when it come to priest pedophiles and corruption in the Vatican. Photo by Max Rossi, AFP

Despite his merciful nature, Pope Francis promised he will not tolerate pedophile priests and the like. He also shook up the Vatican Bank in a bid to remove the likes of a former accountant who allegedly tried to launder millions of euros.

Asked if there are Filipino priests being investigated by the Vatican at the moment, Arevalo said “there definitely are [cases].”

Quoting Tagle, he said the cases in the Philippines are not child abuse incidents but priests having sexual relations with women, “sometimes on a semi-permanent basis, some on an occasional basis. But we have no facts, we have no surveys, we cannot say anything.”

The problem here is that Filipinos are too forgiving of priests. “The people are not taking the responsibility as members of the church seriously.”


So, what can people expect from the Papal visit in the Philippines in January 2015 mean?

Catholic church leaders say the “secret” of Pope Francis – his humanity and mercy – will be unveiled to the people.

In announcing Pope Francis’ visit, Tagle, back in July, said Filipinos should prepare for his unique style, which was already obvious on the first day of his papacy.

“He wants to journey with the people where they are,” he said.

Analysts interviewed said Filipinos should prepare for a Pope Francis who charmed the world by kissing the feet of inmates, partaking meals with the poor, taking selfies with the youth, etc.
“Well, I think when they see this guy, he loves being with the poor, with the ordinary people. Someone who is not doing this for the sake of the newspaper photographers. But that he wants to show his love,” Arevalo said.

Mananzan, for her part, said: “I don’t know what will happen, but what I hope to happen is something real. As [Manila Archbishop Cardinal] Tagle said, that would be like a renewal of faith, renewal of hope, renewal of compassion.”

Already, she senses Filipinos going back to church and renewing their faith.

“Dapat makita rin natin yung kanyang pagkatao dito. Ang tingin ko kasi, kahit mga long-distance, ang daming mga taong bumabalik sa simbahan. Ang daming mga taong nagkakaroon ng hope sa simbahan. E lalo na pagka-nakita siya sa personal,” she said.

Gay groups hope the Pope will shock society anew with new statements favoring the LGBT community, while Mananzan wishes he will touch the conscience of the corrupt.

“Ngayon, ang wish list ko, I don’t know kung gaano sila kakapal, pero ang tingin ko, sana yung example ng Pope, makayanig man lang sakanila na, ‘Teka muna, ano ba ‘tong ginagawa ko? Mukhang hindi yata ganito ang Pope,’” Mananzan said.

Both Arevalo and Mananzan have no plans to seek an audience with the Pope. It would be enough for them to see the Filipino faith becoming stronger because of a merciful leader.

“It does not matter to me if I see him or if I don’t see him, may picture ako sa kanya o walang picture. Sa akin, parang hindi importante ‘yun. Ang gusto ko lang ma-infect tayong lahat sakanyang compassion sa tao,” Mananzan said. 

In January 2015, a lot of Filipinos are expecting to get a glimpse of Pope Francis. Photo by Gent Shkullaku, AFP