“Mercy and compassion” was the theme of Pope Francis’ visit to the Philippines. It was a mantra of sorts displayed in print and banners so much that one nun-like columnist was worried there wasn’t a precise translation of “compassion” into Pilipino, and therefore, the great unwashed of non-English-speaking Filipinos would miss the Pope’s message.
But mercy and compassion for whom, by whom?
The papal visit’s official website referred to “Christ’s compassion for our suffering people still struggling to rise from the devastation wrought by the earthquake and the typhoon that hit Visayas last year.”
So, we’re told we should take the papal visit as an opportunity to be merciful and compassionate to the victims of natural disasters, obviously mainly of Super Typhoon Yolanda that killed probably 10,000. Sympathetic as we are to the survivors, though, that the papal visit is just about this seems to be too narrow a theme.
The website also referred to Matthew 9:36: “But when he (Jesus) saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion for them because they were distressed and scattered, as sheep not having a shepherd.”
That passage, for some biblical scholars who see Jesus as one among many Jewish prophet-revolutionaries that attempted, unsuccessfully, to overthrow Roman rule, clearly meant one thing. This was Jesus’ pity for his people, that at that time, they still hadn’t been united by a God-anointed one (“Messiah” in Aramaic) who would deliver them from the Evil Empire of that period.
Subsequent passages (Matthew 9:37-38) are enigmatic, however “Then saith he unto his disciples, the harvest indeed is plenteous, but the laborers are few. Pray ye therefore, (to) the Lord of the harvest, that he send forth laborers into his harvest.”
That passage has been taken by scholars as a metaphorical follow-up to Matthew 9:36 – that the revolution is ripe but few are joining.
For anthropologists, though, it refers to episodes in the era of primitive agriculture, in which because of a particularly good season, the crops become bountiful, but there are few laborers to harvest them, so that the wheat gets spoiled and rots.
Such episodes have been even interpreted as the reason why wars of conquest were continuous, why slavery and feudalism arose: A warrior elite needed a stable number of warm bodies – slaves or serfs prevented from leaving the manor – to ensure that the crops were harvested. So Jesus felt compassion – as, indeed, he would be in such a situation – for his people that there was a bountiful crop, yet which would become rotten as there were too few workers to harvest it.
What’s the point?
First, we – or the Catholic hierarchy who thought of the theme – don’t really know what they were talking about when they decided on that slogan.
Second, and more important, that theme points to what is wrong with Catholicism and religions in general: They delight in abstract, noble notions – often referring to past situations during biblical times – yet shirk the social reality of the present.
The compassion Jesus was talking about referred to that for people suffering the oppression of a ruthless Roman rule and for those helpless in harvesting a bountiful crop.
At this period of human civilization and in this country, who should we have logically mercy and compassion for?
It is the vast poor, in our country, to be precise, the 30 million Filipinos who can’t get work or decent salaries, who will die earlier than the rich because they can’t afford the best health care and medicines civilization has developed, who will spend their old age and die alone in some dirty slum, whose children’s children and the succeeding generations of their offspring will be exactly in the same situation they are in today – if the structures of capitalism and the rule of the oligarchs are not changed.
These are the people on whom we should pour out all our mercy and compassion.
I’m not a sloganeering communist cadre (not anymore, at least). Just read the rigorously-researched and argued scholarly works of Gregory Clark in “The Son Also Rises: Surnames in the History of Social Mobility, which shows how the rich has always been rich, and the poor, poor, and Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which explains the mechanisms why this is so.
Mercy and compassion, by whom? By the economic and ruling class, the oligarchs of our country, the only people who have the power to change social structures in our country. But Pope Francis didn’t admonish them to do so.
I probably would have, in the words of this paper’s Publisher/Editor “cried and laughed” listening to Pope Francis – if he had scolded our oligarchs for being so selfish and taunted them because they wouldn’t be able to bring their billions to the grave, or if he announced that he would sell some Renaissance paintings and ancient artifacts gathering dust in some Vatican room to set up a Bill and Melinda Gates-type of foundation with a $42 billion endowment devoted to the poor in this bastion of Catholicism in Asia.
Or if he declared that he would exempt the Philippines from the Church’s rigid anti-contraceptive dogma that prevents poor Filipinos from using even the cheapest condoms or IUDs, or if he promised that to atone for the sins of rape and child-abuse committed by hundreds of Catholic priests, he would match the $3 billion the Church spent to silence the complainants to fund a feeding program for the country’s homeless.
Or if he addressed the millions who thought just seeing him would cure their physical illnesses or those of their loved ones, or grant them some boon, like winning the Grand Lotto, and told them: “There are no miracles. The miracle is in the heart of man. In the hearts of us all!”*
(*Translation of the famous lines by Nora Aunor in the award-winning Philippine movie “Ang Himala,” written by Ricardo Lee.)