by Elisabeth Hellenbroich

It was a very “stormy” trip which Pope Francis made from January 12-19 to Sri Lanka and the Philippines. The reception given to his second pastoral visit in Asia (the first trip was to the 6th Asian Youth Day August 2014 in South Korea) was so overwhelming, that during his last day in Manila (capital of the Philippines) 6 Million people attended the Pontifical Mass standing for hours in pouring rain. This is by far the largest number of people which ever participated at a Pontifical Mass celebration.

The pope’s trip carried a clear message and it caused reverberations in particular in Western Europe. The simple but challenging message which the pope delivered to the millions of people, especially to the youth in Asia was that people must concentrate on essential values: respect for the dignity of man, respect for the freedom of religion and freedom of expression. He underlined that true love is loving the other – the sick, the orphans, the street children, the poor – but also accepting to be loved. “The center, the core of the message will be the poor, the poor who want to go forward, the poor who suffered because of Typhon Yolanda and who still suffer the consequences; the poor who have faith, hope in this commemoration of the fifth centenary of the preaching of the Gospel in the Philippines,” the Pope said shortly before his arrival.

On limits of freedom of expression

The Pope had also clear words concerning the question of religious freedom and freedom of expression. “One cannot kill in the name of God”, the Pope said during the press conference (en route to the Philippines 15.01.15). Calling this an “aberration”, he underlined that the main thing in regard to freedom of religion is that “it must be done with freedom, without offending, without imposing and killing… Each one not only has the freedom, the right, but he also has the obligation to say what he thinks to help the common Good.” “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other’s faith”, the Pope said, making reference in a somewhat jokey way to a good friend of his, Dr. Gasbarri (the organizer of the papal trip) “if Dr. Gasbarri, my great friend, says a bad word against my mother, he will get a punch! It’s normal! It’s normal. One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other’s faith, one cannot tease about faith.” In this context he talked about the “legacy of enlightenment” and stressed that “there is a limit, every religion has dignity, every religion that respects human life, the human person. And I cannot joke about it.”

The Pope touched upon a problem which has indeed become very virulent in Europe. In the last two weeks mass demonstrations have taken place – centered in particular in France -that were organized in response to the horrendous terrorist attacks that were launched against the satirical French magazine “Charlie Hebdo” two weeks ago, leaving 17 people dead. Many of those demonstrations were organized under the Slogan “Je suis Charlie” – a sign of strong solidarity with the satirical Magazine Charlie Hebdo which had ridiculed the Prophet Mohamed. Along with this there is a fierce debate in Europe between those who in the name of “freedom of speech” defend the values of the West, such as the “secularist” state and on the other side those who want to defend the dignity of man, i.e. the respect for the values of the different religions and religious tolerance. Articles in the German Daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) in the last days attacked the Pope for having used the word “punch somebody on the nose” arguing that the Pope made a “breach” (misreading him consciously) by showing disregard for the “monopoly of the state to use force”, which would be a key element in the “enlightened state”.

Pastoral visit to Sri Lanka and Philippines

While in Europe Christianity is losing increasingly its attraction for young people, there is a renaissance of Christianity which can be observed in Asia. Hence Asia is becoming the geographical center of attention for the Pope. In part this renaissance is due to the reaction by people who are turning away from autocratic and corrupt political elites and who irrespective of whether they are poor or rich look for a higher spiritual truth beyond the material realm. The message which the Pope repeated throughout his Asia trip was that the love by Jesus must be accepted and given further. It is not only giving love but also the capacity of man to “receive” it and search for it like a “beggar”.

In Sri Lanka the Pope canonized a great evangelizer, St Joseph Vaz , a missionary from the 16th century, who travelling from Goa arrived in Sri Lanka, inspired by missionary zeal and great love of its people, having the particular desire to serve the ill and suffering . “He lived in a period of profound transformation; Catholics were a minority and often divided within –and there was even occasional persecution,” the pope said during the canonization celebration. He emphasized that the life of Saint Joseph Vaz teaches us, “genuine worship of God bears no fruit, not in discrimination, hatred and violence, in respect for the sacredness of life, respect for the dignity and freedom of others and loving commitment to the welfare of all.”

A major highlight of the Pope’s visit was his address to Philippines students from the Santo Tomas University (Manila) and the testimonies given by various students, as well as his visit to the Island Tacloban which was devastated 14 months ago by a Typhoon. Under the most stormy weather conditions the Pope gave a homily expressing his deep solidarity with the people. Most of them had lost everything, are sick and lost their family and home. He improvised a stop in order to pray with several hundred orphans and handicapped children.

Before leaving on Sunday (18th) the Pope celebrated the Santo Niňo Sunday in front of 6 Million people in Manila. The Santo Niňo Sunday is expression for the “image of the Holy child Jesus”. The main message the Pope gave was about the need to protect the family from insidious attacks, stressing that the family is the core of society and that the care for children is key. “We need to protect, guide and encourage our young people, helping them to build a society worthy of their great spiritual and cultural heritage, “ the Pope said. “ Specifically we need to see each child as a gift to be welcomed, cherished and protected. And we need to care for our young people, not allowing them to be robbed of hope and condemned to life in the streets.”

Dialogue with the Youth- the danger of becoming “museum youth”

At the University of Santo Tomas in Manila the Pope addressed representatives from the youth. He talked about the significance of human love, as core element for building a just society. During testimonies given to the Pope, some of the young people talked about their own past as street children, the enormous poverty they had to suffer from, the lack of basic food, shelter, clothing, becoming victims of abuse and calamities.

Exemplary was the testimony given by Jun Chura, a fourteen year old former street child who had in early age left his family, feeding himself with what he could find in the garbage and sleeping on the sidewalk. Thanks to Tulay ng Katabaan , an organization which takes care of street children, he got saved and received a decent education. “I was looking for a piece of carton to make a mat. I did not know also how to find food day after day and what I was doing was just to wait for people to finish their meal in restaurant, then I was asking for their leftover. Also I sometimes was roaming around just to find broken material that I could sell: I was looking for plastic bottles or papers and when my bag was full, I was selling it to make some money to buy some food. It happened also that I was knocking at doors in the neighborhood to beg for food but often they had nothing to give.” Other street children, he reported, were taught by his companions how to steal and kill, to use drugs or sniff glue or sexually abused.

Another student spoke about the “abundance of information due to internet” which can be used today and asked the Pope for some guidance on behalf of the young people of the Philippines: “In a world where the youth is exposed to fast internet connection, smart phones, unlimited texting, instant romantic relationships and busy lifestyles, how can we take time to stop, reflect and listen to God’s will? And lastly Holy Father, what is true love?”

There was also a young relief worker from the “Tacloban Typhoon Yolanda Survivors” who reported how he together with some students had offered his help in Tacloban. Everything was lacking after the disaster had struck and he together with some students had tried to help in the best way they could, not necessarily high tech but simple technology to repair things that enabled people to work.

The need for compassion and empathy

In answer to those various testimonies the Pope expressed very frankly that in light of some questions which were posed to him, such as the question by Jun Chura, he almost had no reply. He emphasized that only when we “cry” about some of the things which were identified, we are able to come close to replying to that question. “Why do children suffer so much? Why do children suffer? When the heart is able to ask itself and cry then we can understand something. ” Pope Francis made a distinction between a “worldly compassion”, which leads people just to put the hand in the pocket and give something to someone, contrary to a true and “deep compassion” which is capable of crying. He emphasized that “in today’s world there is a great lack of capacity of knowing how to cry. The marginalized people weep. Those that are left to one side are crying. But those of us who live a life more or less without needs don’t know how to cry.”

(..) “If you don’t learn how to cry, you can’t be good Christians”, the Pope said. The same would be true in respect to the question how to handle the abundant information which makes young people not wise but risks to turn them into “museum youth”. The most important thing to learn in life is love and “real love is about loving and letting yourselves be loved.”

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