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Filipinos’ response to the papal visit is not fanfare

The pope has just left for Rome. As the pope mobile eased out of the papal nunciature, the crowds, an even bigger swell than that of the past few days, along the route to Villamor airbase, cheered, expressed thanks, and bid the pope, “buen viaje!” Young and old, rich and poor squeezed in what little space they could to catch a glimpse of anything that had to do with the pope. Despite the blurring of class lines that would have otherwise left many of the well-heeled in a fit, people seemed in good spirits.  The surge of positive emotion is undeniable – an emotion that has carried throughout the pope’s almost five-day stay in the country. A stay that, at least for the duration of the papal events, bridged the social divide.

My initial thoughts upon seeing the mind-blowing turn-out included how we, Filipinos (in general) are desperately in need of a charismatic figure to rally behind. Charismatic authority, according to sociologist Max Weber, is one that emanates from a leader seen to have an ‘exemplary’ character, one whose virtues are ‘exceptional’ and who lives according to what he preaches. Filipinos have been bereft of these kinds of leaders for so long. Such history of inept leadership has resulted in increasing poverty levels and disregard for human development. It comes as no surprise then, that among our many problems are the lack of discipline and the lack of concern for the common good. It can be so difficult to make people follow rules because there is no authority figure that can rightly claim respect.

The pope’s visit has shown us that people can, and will, rally behind someone who touches us in a way that resonates with our emotions – our hopes, fears, needs – and gives us a vision in ways we can understand. In the various papal events held, there was a lot of pushing and shoving, some even resulting in injury. Participants left a ton of garbage. In fact, someone commented on social media that if you tell Filipinos what not to do, they will proceed to do it anyway. And yes, there were violations of the rules. But police and organizers noted a general sense of order. The events showed an attempt to act in a relatively disciplined way, perhaps because people knew it was for a higher purpose, because it was for Pope Francis. It takes that kind of leader – one with charismatic authority – to elicit that kind of commitment among the people to do good. And the relative discipline displayed by the crowds tells us that there is hope, so long as there are officials and leaders respectable enough to merit the people’s commitment to unite.

As Filipinos relish in the “sunshine” that is the pope, reviews and questions from various sectors on the authenticity of religious fervor among the people have also been making the rounds. Many have turned to social media to voice out concerns about whether or not the pope’s message of social justice, of care for those in need, will translate into action, especially in the likelihood that certain corrupt politicians who appear to be so devout, will turn a deaf ear to the pope’s words. Many are also critical of the zeal shown by the ‘pilgrim’ crowds, of the rock star attention accorded the pope, of the seeming hypocrisy of the spectacle. They say that at the end of the day, the millions who attended the liturgical celebrations, and the more who tirelessly waited along the route, will probably go back to their non-practice of Catholicism (if they are Catholics), to their worldly ways, to their disregard for the marginalized.

While their concern is not unfounded, the ‘spectacular’ reception for the pope can be seen in terms of what sociologist Emile Durkheim calls “collective effervescence.” Durkeim said that the collective performance of rituals, for instance worship and commemoration, as removed from everyday life, evokes heightened emotions among the participants and engenders a feeling of oneness with each other. The mutual emotional stimulation is directed towards individuals who, or symbols that, represent the group. Such “collective effervescence” reinforces social solidarity, group bonds, and collective identity as it moves people to uphold the ideals of their social group.  Further, symbols and beliefs that have been part of the ritual, thus being “affectively” imbued, serve to stir up the effervescent emotion even after performance of the ritual is over.

Throughout the papal events, the shared experience of hardship – waiting and walking for hours either in the heat or in the cold and rain; the collective experience of crying together, of being excited and happy together, of being inspired together, are as close to collective effervescence as we, a socially divided people, can get. Something happened that is beyond us and beyond our capacity to grasp. And while this feeling may be temporary as people settle back into the daily grind, as a majority continue to battle hunger and poverty, the pope’s message and even the paraphernalia, as affectively imbued, may also continue to motivate us long after the events are over.

Structural change merits a lengthy discussion that goes beyond religion and religious institutions. The daily grind that many Filipinos face after this “retreat” of sorts is one brought about by a highly unequal wealth distribution that has led to a very wide gap between the rich and the poor, a gap perpetuated by those at the top and indirectly accepted by everyone else. It will take a lot to undo this. As Cardinal Tagle said in his latest press conference, implementing the pope’s message of social justice is not for the pope to do.

What the papal visit has shown us is that collective effervescence – the upsurge of emotion that people have had in the past few days – can be harnessed on many levels. Rather than dismissing such religious fervor as hype or fanfare, it might be wise to see it positively and to take inspiration from it, whether institutionally or individually; to see it in terms of the possibilities it creates for solidarity, of people wanting to come together for a greater good. So for now, let us continue to bask even for a few days in a feeling of blessedness. At the same time, let us not forget that Pope Francis’ message of being a “light” for others is also something that is asked of each person. As such, instead of compelling institutions and groups to respond to “what now?,” we can impel ourselves from within to respond to it personally. Why don’t we direct the question to ourselves first, especially if we do not suffer from hunger, homelessness, or unemployment?

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: What a conflict theorist might write about the papal visit – Verstehen


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