THE canonization of St. John Paul II last April 27, 2014 brought me back to the 90s when I was a student priest in Rome. Even then I already counted myself among the blessed (not in a technical way and certainly without official church approval). I had only one reason for feeling the way I did: I was breathing the same air the Holy Father breathed. And he wasn’t even canonized yet. Every time Bus 46 passed St. Peter’s Square as I tried to make my way to The Greg (Pontifical Gregorian University), I would silently breathe in, hoping some tiny bits of grace from then Pope John Paul II’s prayers would find their way to me and my little concerns. Which brings me to the second reason: I was writing a dissertation on his vision of the local Church and its role in societal transformation. I confess it all started when I heard, as a seminarian, the Holy Father’s strong words on upholding human rights and dignity to then President Marcos (on his 1981 visit to the Philippines). I wouldn’t tell you about that, at least not here.
Since the canonization my mind keeps on giving me flashbacks. My mind, as anybody else’s, is a veritable time machine. Lately these flashbacks have taken me to two occasions at which I had a chance to concelebrate Mass with Pope John Paul II out of sheer grace. Each took place in the Holy Father’s little chapel at the Vatican, with no more than 20 people in attendance.
On the second occasion I was a designated reader. It was only when I was actually doing the reading that I realized how lucky I was because the Holy Father was only a foot away (it felt so much better than Clarissa Ocampo’s being only a foot away from Jose Velarde). Once in a while I glanced his way. It struck me how simple he was. The Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church displayed none of the pomp of power Hollywood associates with popes and kings. In fact, I noticed his white papal zucchetto (skullcap), like his dress, was rather worn-out and faded. When he prayed I could hear him groaning as though he was turning over to God the Church’s and the world’s burdens. I thought afterwards that if the Holy Father mingled with other senior priests then, it would have been hard to recognize him as the Visible Head of Roman Catholic Church.
In fact, the Church’s Head was the epitome of simplicity. Because of his simplicity and poverty people hardly recognized him for who he is. That is why, for instance, he says in the gospel of Luke: “You cannot tell by careful watching when the reign of God will come. Neither is it a matter of reporting that it is ‘here’ or ‘there’. The reign of God is in your midst” (Lk 17:20-21). What is Jesus referring to here? Himself. The Kingdom of God is in our midst because Jesus has brought it to us in his person. In himself God reigns and in himself God’s will is perfectly fulfilled. Another saintly pope, Blessed Paul VI would agree when he directly and accurately taught the NT idea of the Kingdom of God as “not a place but a person, the Person of Jesus Christ.” And yet this Jesus Christ was clothed in simplicity unlike anyone else’s. The non-simple could neither recognize him nor fathom his message. Is it any wonder?
The Napolist culture is an indictment of how we have abandoned simplicity in our society for big money life and politics. While the media have almost single-mindedly brought our attention to the names of lawmakers (senators and congressmen) as well as other personalities in their public or private capacities, the media or even the Church, we conveniently forget that we too share in the blame we so willingly cast on others. After all, it is we who have long cultivated the Napolist culture by allowing money to control our politics and almost anything else in our social relations. That no one, no matter how qualified in other crucial criteria, can run for any local or national office without him/her wooing the masses to the tune of millions (I suspect, even billions) of pesos is the staple food of any ‘Napolitan’ practitioner or aspirant. This, together with patronage politics, provides highly fertile ground for the Napolist culture. A remark by Ruby Tuason, explaining why she allowed herself to be a bag lady for a senator’s PDAF share so she could help him respond to people who were constantly asking the senator for money assistance to needs of various kinds, was very telling. Multiply that situation with the number of our public servants or even celebrities and it wouldn’t be too hard to see why the ‘Napolist’ may only be the tip of the iceberg.
I guess I could say, to paraphrase a popular saying, I have seen the Napolist and the Napolist is us.
We need to rediscover simplicity, even if through a saintly pope whom we love in the Philippines, to respond to the Napolist culture. St. John Paul II’s simplicity urges us to be simple enough to be uncluttered by the materialism around us in order to get to the essence of life: faith, hope and love that should be concrete in the way we hold office, work, transact business or provide services. Simple enough to see that the abuse of power starts with us who abuse the power to vote when we vote the undeserving into office. Simple enough to refrain from treating public officials as fiscal messiahs because it compels them to be corrupt. Simple enough never to stop demanding transparency and accountability from those who manage, well or ill, the resources of our government and society. Simple enough to demand both sides of the Napolist or other corruption charges. Simple enough to admit that if we keep refusing to check the performance of people in power out of fear or sloth, we reap the whirlwinds.
Simple enough to realize, every constantly, that we must live simply so that many more may simply live.