Remembering the Pope in the Third World

Community News & Features Apr 16, 2005 at 1:51 pm

By Voltaire de Leon

As we pay tribute to the passing away of Pope John Paul II – for many a total feeling of loss; and, for others, more measured – there can be no doubt, this pope impacted Catholics in a way that made them feel closer to their personal salvation and spiritual liberation.

What about national liberation?

One very interesting thing about Pope John Paul II was his nationalism. He used the powers of the Vaticam and its U.S. connections to support Lech Walesa’s Solidarnosz and bring about the liberation of the Polish people from what one may term Soviet colonialism.

What was the contribution of the Catholic Church to the Philippines’ own national liberation from a U.S.-led global capitalism?

Rizal, Bonifacio and the Church.

Both Rizal and Bonifacio followed our nation’s revolutionary tradition. As every Filipino schoolboy knows, his national hero Dr. Jose Rizal, in his Noli and Fili , castigated the Catholic Church for its abuses. The revolutionary movement led by Andres Bonifacio was as much anti-friar as it was anti-Spain. Even after Spain sold us to the Americans for $20 million, the Catholic Church continued to lord it over us with their patriarchal authority But not for long.

Had Rizal lived to be a hundred, he would have been amazed at the turn the Church took under the inspiration of Pope John the XXIII’s encyclicals Gaudium et Spes and Pacem in Terris. They called out for social justice and freedom of conscience. Vatican II reached back to the social roots of Christianity. Clergy and laity found themselves drawn to the communal, egalitarian practice of the first Christians. Pope Paul VI followed with the explosive Populorum Progressio in 1967 where the Church very markedly sided with the poor of the Third World, even stating that under certain conditions, insurrection was justified. Thus was born liberation theology: a theology that taught a Christianity where the liberation of the poor through the destruction of an unjust, oppressive system was to be the project of the Church.

But what about Pope John Paul II? During his term as pope, he neutralized the liberation theology practitioners among the clergy and stacked the bishoprics with his own conservatives. Yet he also attacked dictatorships for their oppression of the poor and powerless. I have three recollections of John Paul II ‘s visits to the Third World.

The Pope’s Visit to Bacolod in February, 1981

When John Paul II’s visit to the Philippines, he visited Negros Occidental home to among our nation’s poorest. Bishop Fortich greeted him there. Many, many years ago, as a college student, I had the privilege to be his guest, had dinner with him, his priests and nuns. I cannot think of the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador without thinking of Bishop Fortich, himself a military target of assassination attempts like grenade attacks.

The pope celebrated mass with Bishop Fortich. Later on, he addressed more than 700, 000 Negrenses mostly poor farmers and sprinkling of a few hacenderos, Marcos politicos, military officers. The pope said: “Injustice reigns when the laws of economic growth and ever-greater profit determine social relations, leaving in poverty and destitution those who have only the work of their hands to offer.” It was a clear indictment of the oppressive centuries-old hacienda system. He also instructed his priests to ‘…never hesitate to be the voice of those who have no voice.” A local landlord was heard muttering, ‘This is war then.’

The war on the causes of poverty was much the same message John Paul II delivered to the people he visited in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras in the early 1980s.

But in Managua, March 1983

It was a markedly different scene in Managua two years later when John Paul II visited Managua, Nicaragua. There the Sandinista had won a great victory toppling the hated Somoza regime – a kleptocracy like the Marcos regime that was supported by the U.S. But President Reagan let loose the contra war against a popular, socialist government.

It was an opportune moment for the pope to speak for peace. He did not. Fr. Ernesto Cardenal, the Culture Minister of the Sandinista government , and three other priests greeted the pope at the airport tarmac. Instead of a blessing, the pope gave them a tongue lashing, shaking his fingers at a kneeling Cardenal – who was later forbidden to celebrate mass.

At a mass, when the people asked the pope for kind words for 17 young people ambushed and killed by the contras, the pope was pointedly quiet. He later advised parents of their rights not to allow their children to attend “programs inspired in atheism.”

Unlike the Philippines, a socialist Sandinista government had come to power in Nicaragua. Perhaps the pope preferred a religious capitalist (like Cory Aquino) to be president? The message was that it’s okay for priests to defend the poor against an oppressive regime, but not okay for priests to work with socialists who have just kicked out Somoza and took over the government.

On the U.S. Embargo on Cuba

A third recollection of the pope in the Third World was his meeting with Fidel Castro in January, 1998. Here, a more mature socialist state with no contras to destabilize it from inside and confident enough to allow religious life to flourish, the pope was less severe, but still critical of the lack of freedom in Cuba. Castro responded with freeing more than 200 prisoners which Vatican identified as prisoners of conscience.

Incredibly, the pope spoke against the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba as an immorality. And again as recent as January, 2005, he asked the lift it.

Condolence from an Enemy

Pope John Paul II tried to balance Vatican II with his own deep conservatism which rejected women priests, married priests, contraception, homosexuality, liberation theology. He especially opposed communism because of Poland’s experience of Soviet stalinism. But later, he would decry the descent of Poland in the mire of capitalism and its culture of decadence.

Perhaps, an accurate homily to him comes from the communist Fidel Castro: ”Rest in peace, tireless fighter for friendship among peoples, enemy of war and friend of the poor”