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Impression management? Don’t let the Pope leave the Philippines!

In Manila, a sea of Catholic souls occupy the city roads. A whole city lies in paralysis as it eagerly waits to overwhelm the leader of the Catholic Church with a hospitality that is distinctively Filipino. People flock to the streets, wave miniature flags of the Vatican, and wait for their perfect moment to exalt “Mabuhay, Pope Francis!”.

Pope Francis, fresh from Sri Lanka, is currently in the Philippines where he is on a visit that includes a number of family engagements, public masses, and ceremonial proceedings. In moments between the different points of his itinerary, his duty warrants him to greet and wave to the public from his “Popemobile” and bring a religious fervor to all those who can catch a glimpse of his Holiness.

This is why it is not a surprise that the government took on a strategy involving heightening security levels and even embellishing areas that the Pope will grace with his presence. Roads were cleaned considerably, the LRT-1 track was painted with a hue of beige, and street children were reportedly being rounded up to keep the streets free from urban blemishes (in a separate report, the Department of Social Welfare and Development insisted that the street children were merely being rounded up to be part of the ceremonies with the pope).

It is perfectly comprehensible to bolster security measures in the context of the Pope’s arrival. After all, he is not only seen as the most powerful figure in the Catholic Church, but is also regarded as the head of state of the Vatican. And as inter-state proceedings go, the protection of people in power is of utmost concern to prevent disorder in the social landscape.

Public spaces have likewise been seen to and made presentable in preparation for the Pope’s arrival. But while everybody else is doing a good job of keeping the Pope safe, I cannot help but feel a little uneasy when I think of the day the Pope finally departs for Rome. In the aftermath, everybody will most likely resume their daily routine and disregard the improvements, albeit mundane and cosmetic, that have been done in their areas.

Given the slow pace of effecting change in our society, perhaps it would be better to let the Pope stay here in the Philippines.

Let the Pope stay here in the country. Not because I profanely believe that the Philippines is the better Vatican. It is also not for the narcissistic reason of being hailed as the largest Catholic nation on this side of the world. Instead, let him stay because it seems that it takes someone as powerful as the Vicar of Christ to clean up the mess, act out an old fantasy, and bring holier-than-thou politicians to their knees.

Erving Goffman, an American sociologist, is known for his influential works in symbolic interactionism and impression management. In one his works, he likens the “presentation of the self” to a theater performance where the individual person is seen as an actor and the rest of society is the audience. There is the concept of the front stage where the actor acts out his or her desired role to leave a positive impression to everyone else. There is also the back stage where the individual can be himself or herself and does the necessary things to prepare his or her performance and interaction with other people.

The papal visit, like all other remarkable exhibitions of power and importance, seems to take many elements of impression management and blow them to bigger proportions. The visit has become a massive theater performance where the whole country becomes the actor and the Pope, the sole member of the audience. In the front stage, we warmly welcome Pope Francis to leave a positive impression, but back stage, we conceal the kind of effort we did to temporarily beautify and mend the spaces of his course.

So let him stay.

Let the Popemobile roam the rest of the LRT-1 line so they will actually paint and improve the whole line. Let it wander every street of the country so that cleanliness will answer the widespread Filipino habit of littering. Let the Pope live the rest of his days here so that politicians will tremble in repentance as they carry out their duties as change makers, whether sincere or otherwise, and keep up their front stage performance as competent leaders so that they need not to hide their secrets and dirty work in the back stage when the rest of the nation is not watching.

As the Pope continues to engage with the Filipino people, I draw a few questions to reflect on the outcome of the visits of foreign people in power: Since these visits bring about superficial temporary changes that hardly scratch the surface, but that do get some things done, is impression management then a good or a bad thing? Do we really need someone as powerful as the Pope to actually mobilize resources and inculcate changes, no matter how small or big they are? What does it take for us to act on these short-term improvements and actually build on them in the long run?

In the end, we also have to be aware that these strategies of improving our localities and masking our dirt are dictated by those in power. Unless every Filipino, especially those who hold power, will demand more and sincerely act his or her own part even when nobody is watching, I fear we will continue to live in the front stage with our pretentious acts that will only feed our false sense of long-term change.

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