PGTW: This atheist says, welcome, Pope Francis!

POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 15 January 2015, Thursday

This atheist says, welcome, Pope Francis!

People have asked me, an atheist, what I think of the Pope’s visit – yea or nay?

His Holiness Pope Francis’s state and apostolic visit to the country starts today and lasts till Monday. The country, particularly Metro Manila, has been turned topsy-turvy by the government making massive preparations for the event, including locking down entire areas to traffic and declaring non-working holidays for the duration.

Traffic snarled horribly starting last Monday (Jan. 15) when Metropolitan Manila Development Authority head Francis Tolentino performed a dry run and shut entire areas to motorists. Committees were formed, one for Manila and the other for Leyte, to organize the Pope’s visits in those places. Commemorative coins were struck. Some 2,000 traffic enforcers will be asked to wear adult diapers during their tour of duty.

Government funds are being spent for all these preparations.

Article 2, Section 6 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution declares: “The separation of Church and State shall be inviolable.” “Inviolable” means “never to be broken, infringed, or dishonored.”

Are all these preparations that government is making a violation of this policy?

The Pope is a unique personage in that he has a dual role – he is both head of a millennia-old religion with an estimated 1.2 billion adherents worldwide, and he is also the head of the Vatican City State, the world’s smallest internationally-recognized independent state in area (44 hectares) and population (842).

Moreover, with some 60 to 80 percent of Filipinos professing to be Roman Catholics, and with the religion’s rite and customs deeply embedded in Filipino culture and tradition, the Pope’s coming gains even more importance.

This explains the fuss attending his arrival, a treatment not similarly accorded the visit of United States President Barack Obama, head of the world’s foremost superpower.  The difference is that Obama is not also the head of a world religion.

Pope Francis, in his twin roles, will not only be holding Masses in various areas, he will also be meeting senior government officials and members of the diplomatic corps in a general audience on Monday (Jan. 19) at Malacañan Palace with President Benigno Aquino III.

The dominant ideology of a society will control and influence it to a significant degree; atheists like myself, and other minorities, cannot expect to stand in the path of the twin juggernauts of culture and religion and not be crushed. There are times when it is more prudent to step aside and enjoy the parade.

All we can do is remain vigilant with regards to the law, and in this case, several legal eagles assured me, there is no violation of Church-State policy.

What’s truly reprehensible are the antics of politicians who have hitched their bandwagons to the Popemobile by displaying epal banners and engaging in similar publicity moves.

It was also inappropriate for Aquino to say that he would like to discuss with the Pope the state of the Church in the Philippines and “promote the Kingdom of God” during his term. The head of a democratic and secular country should always bear in mind that there are other religions in the country besides Catholicism.

The Philippine Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to the reproductive health bill, abortion, same-sex marriage, and divorce, is only to be expected – it’s their job, after all, to defend their beliefs no matter how medieval. Pope Francis will do the same. We cannot expect otherwise from him.

It’s up to our government to bring about a secular state, in line with the Constitution, and to write and enforce laws that will benefit all without fear or favor, that will not discriminate, that will not unduly raise one up at the expense of another.

It’s up to our citizenry to hold our government and other societal institutions accountable for upholding the best interests of the people, basing decisions upon sound science and logic and not the mumbo-jumbo of superstition or the influence of the rich and mighty.

Pope Francis has nothing to do with the incompetence and stupidity of some of our government officials. For that we have no one else but ourselves to blame, a lesson we should heed for the next elections.

Meanwhile, if the Pope’s arrival brings comfort, if his presence bestows peace, if his example spreads joy and calm among believers, then that’s all to the good.

So this atheist says, welcome, Pope Francis!

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