The Francis effect

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Saturday, July 19, 2014


IT DIDN'T make waves as the 1986 Catholic Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) pastoral letter did. That denounced the 1986 snap election vote count by the Marcos dictatorship and helped trigger People Power 1.

CBCP's new letter confirms the early January 2015 visit by Pope Francis. Skip the ceremonies. The pontiff instead seeks to meet typhoon and earthquake victims in the Visayas.

Titled “A Nation of Mercy and Compassion,” the letter comes from a local church whose emerging leaders are breaking away from brimstone excommunication threats over issues like reproductive health.

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Cardinals Luis Antonio Tagle and Orlando Quevedo are the new generation’s face. They focus on securing justice for slum dwellers to cooperation with marginalized minorities. They live austerely.

“Are we a church that calls and welcomes sinners with open arms?” Francis asked earlier. “Or are we a church closed in on herself? Are we a house for everyone...the strongest, the weakest, sinners, the indifferent...a chruch where one cares for another, where the face of God dwells?”

The distinctive way to prepare for Francis’s visit is for us “to become a people rich in mercy,” CBCP president archbishop Socrates Villegas wrote.

“Let us make mercy our national identity...Villegas lists practical daily suggestions from sharing food with the hungry to simple refraining from harsh words.

Two short years back, the church was rocked by the first resignation of a pope in five centuries. Benedict XVI quit, citing failing health. The conclave elected a little known cardinal who had booked his return flight to Argentina.

“Buona serra,” Jorge Cardinal Bergolio told a St. Peter’s Square throng---and stunned them by asking for their blessing first. He took the name of Francis, the mendicant friar from North Umbrian town of Assisi. The simple lifestyle of Francis and his followers recast a 13th century church fractured by corruption.

From day one, Francis set the example. He waved aside the ermine cloak for a papal elect. He shunned the papal apartment and lodged in a two room flat in a Vatican hostel. He grounded papal limousines, preferring a modest car. He stood in line for coffee. And he continues to institute reforms, now rocking the Curia, mired in turf wars.

Tough reforms are progressing, say Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga and Oswald Gracias of India. They’re among eight prelates Francis picked to spearhead recasting of the church. None are Italians.

The reforms range from capping service in the Vatican to five years, bringing more lay people into the Curia, scrapping automatic giving of cardinal red hats to appointing more diocesan bishops with expertise, writes National Catholic Reporter analyst Thomas Reese, SJ. councils. “These would be earth-shaking reforms for the Vatican.”

Worldwide, Catholic population crested at 1.21 billiion end of 2011, says the latest “Statistical Yearbook of the Church.” Increases in Africa (4.3 percent) and Asia (2 percent) outpaced that of Europe and the Americas–-which merely kept abreast of population growth.

The number of priests, religious and seminarians increased. In contrast, the number of women in religious orders registered “a sharp downward trend since 2001. Worldwide, there has been a 10 percent decrease in the numbers of women religious.

Come October, synod of bishops called by Francis will tackle issues not even visible in the horizon at the 1980 conference: surrogate parenthood to childless marriages.

That will affect the Philippines where the “Francis effect” is now being felt.

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on July 20, 2014.

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