Several times since Friday night, I have watched that homily that Pope Francis offered at Tacloban in the Philippines. One of the things that keeps coming to mind as I do is some commentary I heard Fr Robert Barron offer some months ago, probably in one of his many online videos. He said that we Catholics today are fortunate to be living in a “golden age of the papacy” that has perhaps not been seen since the early Church. Pope after pope has come before us: John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis — remarkable and holy leaders for God’s church, each in their own way.
In Tacloban on Friday we saw in a luminous way the courage, compassion, and holiness of Francis. He said himself that he had decided at the time of Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013 that he needed to go to Tacloban, where so many thousands died and many more thousands lost family and homes and livelihoods. And so it was not surprising that he fulfilled that intention this weekend, despite the onset of a tropical storm at the time of this pastoral visit to the Philippines. The sight of Pope Francis in that yellow poncho, on that windy and rain-swept makeshift altar, was powerful testimony to his determination to fulfill it.
And then the homily. He didn’t even bother to begin the homily prepared for the occasion. He simply spoke ad lib and obviously from his heart. And what came was a proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in simple and clear and moving terms: Jesus as Lord, Jesus as incarnate in the suffering of humanity.
As we see in the video (and the photo above), Francis literally did in this homily exactly what those previous great Popes of ours have each done so insistently, in their own ways and in the circumstances of their own times: he pointed the people, pointed us, to Jesus.
Now this morning comes news of a crowd of 6 to 7 million people for today’s Mass in Manila. And in today’s homily he reminds us of “our deepest identity,” that of each of us being, together, members of God’s family and that we must live with one another like that is what we are. Again, he says it simply, plainly, winsomely. What he said and the way he said it reminds me very much of the thing I often hope my children will always remember as being a fundamental lesson I tried to raise them to understand: God gives us to each other as gifts, to be God’s help and God’s love to one another, to make one another’s lives better, and so we must always ask ourselves, “Am I being a gift to him or her?”
Rocco comments on today’s numbers:
Beyond taking the all-time record from the final day of John Paul II’s 1995 visit in the same place, it is significant that today’s mass of humanity did not come in the context of a World Youth Day, unlike the prior title-holder and Francis’ draw of 3 million to the closing of 2013’s WYD on Rio de Janiero’s Copacabana beach. What’s more, while John Paul’s last trip to Asia was commonly understood as a “farewell” to a pontiff who was entering the pantheon of legend in his 17th year as Pope, Francis has now presided over the two largest papal crowds ever within the first two years of his pontificate.
To those who scowl at Francis in our day for characteristics and priorities that we have seen on display clearly enough even on this Philippines visit — because he is not attentive enough to the prettiness of the liturgy (that damned yellow poncho!) or because his language at times lacks theological precision (“if someone says a swearword against my mother, of course he’ll get a punch in the nose”) — we should all have the wisdom and common sense to say, “You are silly,” and then to ignore them. Because may God protect us from getting so wrapped up in those peripherals that we keep ourselves from following the direction of Francis’s pointing finger, pointing to Christ, and from allowing his simple, loving, and humble witness from forming us into better Christians.