FORTY YEARS ago this month, two spectacular visitors arrived in Manila. First came Typhoon “Yoling,” the worst storm to hit Manila in the last 100 years. It rolled back the roof off the Ateneo covered court and threw it away as easily as a person peels an orange or an and flips it into a garbage can. It removed half the roofs of the poor houses in the Tondo Foreshore area and covered Taft Avenue with water up to people’s waists. The second visitor came toward the end of the month. This was Pope Paul VI, and with him 100 bishops from the surrounding countries of Asia. They were here for the first Asian Bishops Meeting and the formation of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences. As in the past, strong winds and prophecy arrived together.
The Pope and bishops issued a Message to Asia that remains as fresh and challenging today as it did then. And at the end of the meeting, as if teaching by example, Pope Paul spent a day in Tondo. He walked the muddy streets to the home of a poor family and spent almost an hour with them.
If we were back in 1970, what would we have expected the Pope and bishops to say to the peoples of Asia at the start of their Asian-wide evangelical effort? Most people, I think, would have predicted that they would talk of the Church’s past works, defend it against old accusations and insist on its rights—its freedom to practice the faith, for example. People would have predicted that the bishops’ statement would be triumphalistic in tone, although Catholics made up barely 2 percent of Asia’s people.
Instead the Message of the Asian Bishops Meeting was a very “non-churchy” (in the words of Fr. Catalino Arevalo, S.J.). The Pope and bishops accepted the poverty, oppression and fatalism of Asia as their special areas of concern. They talked respectfully of Asia’s ancient and diverse religions and cultures, and with admiration of the new awakening of the Asian people at that time, especially the youth, and their longing for freedom and a better life and their willingness to struggle for those blessings. The Churchmen said they wanted to work alongside all in Asia who seek to bring freedom and prosperity to the Asian masses. In the resolutions that followed, the first expressed their determination to become the Church of the Poor, “in order that no man no matter how lowly or poor should find it hard to come and find in us their brothers.” I think we can now add: and no matter what their religion or sex.
One of the young Catholic who was presented to the Pope in a special ceremony on that occasion took the message to heart. Oscar Francisco dedicated himself to a life of poverty. It was not the life of poverty a religious might live, but one that might impress modern youth. At the end of his life, for example, there was little to care for his illnesses. All his life he had worked to organize the urban poor and farmers.
At the end of the meeting, the Pope spent Sunday afternoon in Tondo’s Barrio Magsaysay. Thousands of ZOTO members marched to the Don Bosco compound to hear him. After the speech he walked on streets still thick with Yoling’s mud to the home of a poor family and spent almost an hour talking and praying with them. (I remember that the forces were anxious that he was taking so long.) He walked back through the mud sober-faced as if he had seen and heard something terrible.
The Pope and bishops also said in their message, “We have seen the face of the next age of mankind being written.” They said they “saw the masses awakening, the end of long ages of fatalism and the passive acceptance of poverty, ignorance and sickness.” They saw and understood the expectation of Asians for “more rice on the table, more knowledge, freedom and dignity…” They saw “the people of Asia coming together as one family.”
I remember how happy the young people were that the Pope and bishops had talked of things that were close to their hearts. It is easier for the young, for the people of other faiths and even for Catholics, it seems, to see the Church as the Good Shepherd when it talks of human rights and the poor.
The text of Resolution No. 1 sums up the heart of the Church’s Message to Asia: “It is our resolve, first of all, to be more truly the Church of the Poor. If we are to place ourselves at the side of the multitudes in our continent, we must in our way of life share something of their poverty. The Church cannot set up islands of affluence in a sea of want and misery; our own special lives must give witness to evangelical simplicity, and no man (or woman), no matter how lowly or poor (or what their religion), should find it hard to come to us and find in us their brothers (and sisters).”
Those few days at the end of November 1970 that Pope Paul and the bishops spent here in Manila were probably the brightest theological moment in the continent’s history. We should remember that at this very special time, they chose to talk of poverty, human rights, democracy and equality, and of the Church of the Poor. They showed us the road to the future.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is email@example.com.