Juan L. Mercado

Forgetting to weep

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Scavengers sifting through garbage dumps of Manila’s Payatas, “Smokey Mountain” of Cebu, and Mandurriao in Iloilo, are half a world away from Brazil. That’s where over three million people gathered for World Youth Day.


From Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis reached out to them. He asked that 35 Argentine landfill workers or  cartoneros  come up to the main altar. They’re dubbed “catadores  de  materiais  recicláveis” in Portuguese, which is spoken in Brazil.

Poverty and hunger slash their life expectancies. In Mexico City, the average lifespan for  a  cartonero  is 39 years—three decades shorter than the national average. One out of three babies born to Egyptian garbage dump families dies before the age of one.

In Payatas here, scavengers cook  papag  from food scraps winnowed from dead cats, glass shards and, sometimes, human cadaver parts. “It tastes sour,” a 13-year-old says. “It fills our stomach but doesn’t last till evening.”

“With crude rakes, it’d take 20 minutes to sort out from rotting litter ‘recyclables’,” recalls Fr. Heinz Kulüke who lived among 160 families in squalid Cebu huts. Adults earn barely enough for rice. “There is no future,” a 15-year-old scavenger told Father Kulüke who now heads the worldwide Society of the Divine Word.

“Reach out to the farthest, the most indifferent,” Francis told the youngsters. As a World Youth Day spinoff, the Pope wants them to create “a mess in dioceses” and “people to go out… to defend ourselves against everything that is worldliness… comfortableness, that is clericalism, that is being shut-in on ourselves.” Earlier in Rio’s cathedral, BBC’s Julia Carneiro reported, Pope Francis prodded bishops and priests to “leave the comfort of your churches and go to the  favelas   (shantytowns)… We cannot keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities, when so many people are waiting for the Gospel.”

“Pope Francis proved to be a pontiff of surprises,” writes the Boston Globe’s Lisa Wangsness. That can blur context. After all, the world first met Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina as Francis only four months ago—sans ermine cloak and regalia. As the 265th successor to Peter, he now jolts an over 2,000-year-old institution not only by homespun word—but mainly by compelling example.

Don’t tool around in fancy cars, the Pope told  his priests. Francis dumped Vatican Mercedes-Benzes for a simple van. “Seeing the Argentinian pope riding in a Fiat Pinto, one of the least expensive of cars—his own choice—around the streets of Rio filled me with the deepest tenderness,” Ilze Scamparini wrote in The Guardian. “A pope who dares to change a centuries-old mentality risks being taken for an exotic populist.”

After election, Francis turned down sprawling pontifical apartments. “There’s enough room here for 300,” he said. Instead, he lodges in a no-frills Vatican hostel. In Buenos Aires, he turned over Villa Miseria to a religious order that operates it as a hospital. He lived in a two-room rented apartment and took the bus to work.

He wears sensible black shoes and gets his own coffee from a vending machine. “This is Jorge,” he told his startled newspaper dealer in Brazil, to suspend delivery. On Holy Thursday rites he washed the feet of a Serbian woman prisoner.

“A simple gesture is not a simple gesture when it is the Pope’s gesture,” notes theologian Robert Dodaro. This sparked unease among traditionalists. Some grouse he “desacralizes” the papacy.

Eternal Word Television Network’s Mitch Pacwa notes few complaints. “All the popes are against consumerism, but this guy brings the hay down to where the goats can get it.” More  people outside the Church sit up when Francis speaks.

“Sergio, how good you are here,” Francis said, giving Jewish rabbi Sergio Bergman from Argentina a warm  abrazo. “Did you sneak in?” Vatican protocol officers barred Bergman from a delegation of Jewish representatives at an interfaith meeting. Quietly, Francis sent word that Bergman was his coworker.

“Now that I am before Francis, I again embrace my Rabbi Bergoglio,” Bergman recalls telling the Pope in an article in Argentina’s La Nacion. “A Jewish tradition prescribes reciting  a blessing when one is before a wise man and great teacher… I prayed in Hebrew the blessing. At the end, both of us said amen…  I’m still overwhelmed at writing these lines.”

After Rio, Francis will find more work cut out. That ranges from rooting alleged corruption within a change-resistant curia, bishops who lag in enforcing sex abuse protocols, surging secularization in the West, and pentacostalism that saps the Church in Latin America.

“This new protestantism drained followers even from Candomblé, the African religion brought by the slaves. In this religious democratization, 80 percent of babies were baptized, but church attendance fell to 57 percent,” says a Datafolha survey.

Before Rio, Francis addressed papal nuncios from over 60 countries. They make recommendations for local bishop appointments. Give me names of  priests who live in poverty and demonstrate concern for the poor, he asked.

Who will Francis appoint to replace Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state who resigned last month? “Then we’ll have some sense of what this papacy is going to be about,” foresees  Fr. Mark Massa, dean of Boston College’s School of Theology.

Francis is 76. An illness as a student left him with one lung. Time magazine’s cover story says this pontiff would get people to heal “a society that has forgotten how to cry.”

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