What was in the Pope’s bag?

Barely has Pope Francis recovered from jet lag and already we have 49 of our soldiers dead and a peace process gone wrong. Further, as proof that there were indeed 6 million of our brethren singing and praising the heavens, a mountain of garbage has taken shape in Quirino. Hundreds of the homeless have been shuttled back to their hammocks in Manila Bay, their heaven on the hills now nothing but a hazy dream.   Ageing prisoners are still waiting for the President’s hand and seal, as the Pope’s call for mercy fell on deaf ears. Instead, the country’s once exalted son has chosen to highlight the Pontiff’s admonition against corruption. Except that his administration is without sin, and thus casts the first stone.

We were a country united in spirit for 5 days. We waited on the Pope, walked behind him, wept alongside him, and prayed with him through a storm. But what happens when the messenger carries his bag and flies back home? What happens when the Santo Papa bids us goodbye and we are grasping for quotes and in desperation choose to dwell on his tidbit about mating rabbits? Or that everyday hence, the messages are about who cooked what or what filled his belly en route to Rome?

Relics and fiestas. We love them. Rock stars and telenovelas. We love them. Which is why we remember what the Pope ate for breakfast or that he wore a UST badge. Which is why you see his face everywhere you look up and through every tollbooth on your daily route. We’ve erected ourselves a Golden Statue. And anything with the Santo Papa: from rosary beads to a fan, are selling out like hotcakes. Which is why “what’s inside the Pope’s bag?” was trending as the doors closed. Like a rock star.

We did not shoot the messenger but the message has escaped, or is probably now lost in translation. The herald’s message bogged down by the attributes we are famous for: fun and resilience a.k.a. forgetfulness. But

Divinity is not playful. The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see. And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like the monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part.

– Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

And so, what was really inside the Pope’s bag? Pope Francis didn’t pull out rabbits. Yet he similarly spoke of greedy pigs, excesses and dark places. Of beggars and weeping, the misshapen, the orphaned, the homeless and how we are compelled to see them instead of shuttling them to luxury resorts out of sight. The Pope did not keep holy relics we could touch and make us whole. And he didn’t quite fancy the limelight. Or that we take our relics home and so be doubly blessed. Quite the opposite, he begged: bring the sacred out of our altars and resting places; carry the light to the fringes, the periphery, and those hidden from view; and on your own, touch others and make them whole.

We have been graced by Pope Francis. But the shepherd has left us. And already, 49 of our soldiers have been slaughtered. Faith has left us a mountain of garbage. The homeless are back in their hammocks dotting Manila Bay. And on its nth year, our legislators are unable to catch the thief: they are still searching for wrongdoing in aid of legislation.

Go back to those days of singing and praising, of smiles and blessed rain, and of a Pope who carried a messenger bag. And then seek and find anew.

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