By Ross H. Munro; Richard N. Ostling; Wilton Wynn MANILA Monday, Mar. 02, 1981
The Pope on human rights—and wrongs
After eight international tours that have covered IS nations, tumultuous motorcades and clamoring multitudes have become familiar when Pope John Paul II is on the road. But the papal procession across the Philippines last week—his ninth foreign journey and his first to Asia—also displayed ample elements of stagecraft along with spontaneous outpourings of devotion.
On the one hand, there were memorable eruptions of unprogrammed exuberance. At Manila’s Baclaran Church, John Paul’s mere appearance sent 2,000 nuns into a wave of near ecstasy. During a pep rally at the University of Santo Tomás, tens of thousands of students lustily chanted “J.P. Two, We Love You—You Are Super.” The highest pitch came in Cebu, the cradle of Philippine Catholicism, where the city’s population doubled for the day. Thousands had waited in the open air since the previous night to catch a glimpse of the Pontiff.
There were also rehearsed spectacles that were part of a careful plan laid down by autocratic President Ferdinand Marcos and his powerful First Lady Imelda, who had much to gain from a festive association with John Paul. Everywhere, as if on cue, Filipinos were on hand to enact earnest welcoming playlets, sing, dance or pose as “tribesmen” in outdated garb. During one motorcade, a phalanx of trained water buffalo knelt in reverence just as the pontifical car swept by, while at another point a beaming bride and groom in a mock wedding paused in mid-ceremony to wave to the Pope from a bamboo roadside chapel.
Throughout, the Filipinos saw and heard a many-sided Pontiff. John Paul was, as always, the charismatic Pope who set multitudes cheering. He was the political Pope, at once scolding his presidential host with a sermon on human rights and admonishing priests and nuns against revolutionary activism. He was the diplomat-Pope, extending an olive branch to the People’s Republic of China and appealing for Muslim-Christian harmony on blood-soaked Mindanao. He was the doctrinaire Pope, zealously condemning artificial birth control in a nation with one of the most rapidly growing populations on earth. And he was the pastoral Pope, fondly kissing each member of a delegation of deaf-mutes, or impishly chiding singers who struggled through a rendition of the song Sto Lat (100 Years) in Polish. “The melody is good,” he laughed, “the words so-so.”
It was the second papal visit in only a decade to Asia’s one predominantly Christian nation. Pope Paul VI had gone in 1970, and narrowly escaped serious injury when a crazed man attacked him with a knife. John Paul, history’s most traveled Pope, laid on a punishing 20,000-mile, twelve-day itinerary that included an initial stopover in Muslim Pakistan on the way to Manila, and was to be followed this week with a stop on Guam, four days in Japan, a touchdown in Anchorage, Alaska, and a first-ever papal flight over the North Pole en route to Rome.
The journey in the Philippines was officially billed as “pastoral,” and included a beatification ceremony in Manila’s Luneta Park. But the Pope knew he was ministering to a troubled flock. Just last month, in an effort to stave off criticism in advance of John Paul’s visit, Marcos had slightly softened his autocratic rule by decreeing an end to more than eight years of martial law. It was largely an empty gesture; the President retains most of the government machinery in his own hands.
The long absence of democracy had deepened rifts in the country—rifts that have polarized the Philippine church. Some of the 7,000 nuns, 4,500 priests and 99 bishops support the Marcos regime, but many others openly criticize its social and economic priorities and have spoken out against political abuses or military atrocities in never ending counterinsurgency campaigns. Seeking to throw some sort of unity over this divided church has been Manila’s Jaime Cardinal Sin, 52, who follows a policy toward the Marcos regime known as “critical collaboration.” Lately, Sin has been more critic than collaborator, however.
Into this arrived John Paul II, carrying his own message of muscular but peaceful Christianity. He went to preach human rights to the Marcoses and moral obligations to the Philippine people, to speak of a revolution of the spirit rather than of the gun, to depoliticize the church and dissociate it from the political left and political right.
From the outset, the Pope wasted little time before plunging into polemics. Within eight hours of his rousing arrival at Manila International Airport, John Paul was feted at a formal reception in Malacanang Palace, the glittering presidential mansion. With the Marcoses seated stiffly at his side, he scolded the President in some of the sternest language that diplomacy admits. He said that he was pleased at “recent initiatives”—meaning the lifting of martial law—but proceeded to challenge the rationale upon which Marcos had built his strongman rule. “A legitimate preoccupation with the security of the state,” warned the Pontiff, “could lead to the temptation to subjugate the people, their dignity and their rights to the state.” Discarding a prepared reply, Marcos seemed chastened in his first response: “Forgive us, Holy Father. Now that you are here, we resolve that we shall wipe out all conflicts and set up a society that is harmonious, to attain the ends of God.” After the Pope, the President, the First Lady and their two daughters had retired for a 50-minute conversation, Marcos emerged looking unusually solemn. He later went on television to report that in private the Pope had expressed concern over “the influence of the liberal as well as the Marxist elements in the church.” Said Bishop Francisco Claver, an outspoken anti-Marcos progressive: “The visit is go ing as we government.” feared. It’s being used by the government.”
It is a continuing paradox of John Paul’s pontificate that he exerts profound personal political impact at the same time that he pleads for a less politi cized priesthood. In the Philip pines, that meant criticizing Marcos at the palace, while is suing, in meetings with nuns and priests, now familiar warnings against direct political action. Partisan politics and concerted social action, said John Paul, should be left to the lay Christians, while the clergy provides spiritual leadership.
The political tension was nowhere more evident than in a midweek visit to the Tondo section of Manila, one of the most notorious slums in Asia. It was there in 1970 that Paul VI had dramatically entered the shack of a modest laborer, Carlos Navarro, and had given him $500. Tondo this time became another Marcos stage setting. The Pope appeared in a square that had been beautified with a manicured park and freshly painted public housing. Just two blocks away lay the ram shackle shanties and filthy, un-Jubilant paved alleyways. In his speech, The John Paul renewed his plea to the who are “trapped in injustice and powerlessness.” But, paradoxical again, he also cautioned the poor that “violence, class struggle or hate” cannot produce true liberation.
The failure of the papal party to explore the slum was due not only to stage-managing but to justified worries about the Pope’s safety. Police had earlier received a tip that a religious cult was bent on assassinating John Paul. Jitters increased when a student plunged toward the Pope during the frenzied youth rally at Santo Tomas. Even before he reached the Philippines, during the stopover in Karachi, a handmade bomb had gone off, killing a man who appeared to have been holding it just before John Paul arrived to celebrate a stadium Mass for 100,000.
After Tondo, the Pope moved to the bayside park for the lavish outdoor beatification, the first held outside Rome in modern times, for 16 martyrs slain for trying to preach the Gospel in 17th century Japan. One of them from the Philippines, Lorenzo Ruiz, thus became his country’s first candidate for sainthood. That night, after the ceremony, at a meeting with ethnic Chinese from several Asian nations, John Paul issued his most direct appeal yet for normalized church relations with Peking. “Whatever difficulties there have been,” he said, “they belong to the past, and now it is the future that we have to look to.” From China, however, came a less than enthusiastic initial response. Bishop Michael Fu of Peking, a spokesman for China’s “Patriotic” church, which broke ties with the Vatican more than two decades ago, said: “It will be very difficult to alter the present situation.” For one thing, he asked, was the Vatican prepared to end its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan?
After a bit of sleep, the Pope was off to the port city of Cebu, where the chaplain to Explorer Ferdinand Magellan said the Philippines’ first Mass in 1521. There John Paul was accorded his most thunderous welcome. Cheering, weeping crowds along the route engulfed the papal car. The jubilant procession carried the Pontiff to an airfield, where he celebrated Mass beneath an 80-ft. cross carved from the trunk of a palm. Prominent on the altar, in the Pope’s honor, was a replica of Poland’s omnipresent Black Madonna, constructed of butterfly wings.
There John Paul reaffirmed his stern opposition to priests marrying, divorce, polygamy, abortion and artificial birth control. Filipinos have one of the world’s highest population growth rates (2.6% a year), and the sermon was another rebuke to the Marcos government, which has pressed for family planning and voluntary sterilization.
The most grueling leg of the trip was an island-hop to five cities in the central and southern archipelago. John Paul encountered a notably more subdued reception at Davao, on the island of Mindanao where 60,000 people have died since 1972 in a Muslim insurrection. After a Mass for Catholics, John Paul met 65 Muslim representatives who had come from other parts of Mindanao. He made an eloquent plea for an end to warfare and interreligious discord. The entire world, he said, “needs to see fraternal coexistence between Christians and Muslims in a modern, believing and peaceful Philippine nation.”
Next he was off to Bacolod, a region of sugar plantations and grinding rural poverty, where Communists have been gaining influence. Nearly 200,000 Filipinos were on hand as John Paul declared: ‘The church will not hesitate to take up the cause of the poor and to become the voice of those who are not listened to when they speak up, not for charity but for justice.” He also said it is inadmissible to use the gift of land to serve the few, while “the vast majority are excluded from the benefits the land yields.” But again he warned against political violence and class struggle.
What impact would the Pope’s alternating pleas for social justice and cautions against activism have upon the highly politicized Philippine priests and nuns? Sister Pilar Verzoza, who had opposed the whole idea of the papal visit because it would help Marcos, paused to ponder the Pope’s statements as she made her social welfare rounds in a Manila slum. “We’re certainly not going to be closing our eyes to the injustices around us.” Added her colleague, Sister Christine Tan, “I will study what he says, and then decide whether it is true.”
Whatever the sisters and other activists decide about John Paul’s social stands, none would deny that he had been crystal clear on one issue. Under Marcos, strikes are forbidden and labor unions are government-controlled. Thus it was a final act of outspoken opposition when the Pope strongly upheld the right of workers to organize free trade unions and “guarantee the pursuit of their social welfare.” If the word Solidarity did not cross his lips, Poland and its laborers could not have been far from his thoughts.
—By Richard N. Ostling. Reported by Ross H. Munro and Wilton Wynn/Manila.