Pope John Paul II : A Visit to Tondo
April 07, 2005
By Rina Jimenez-David
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the April 8, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

IN HIS novel "A Watch in the Night," Denis Murphy writes of the preparations and politics behind the visit of Pope John Paul II to Manila in the dark days of martial law.

Fr. Ben Santos, the Jesuit provincial, is summoned to Rome, supposedly to help prepare the Pope's speeches and homilies in Manila and also to give background information on the social and political situation obtaining in the country.

But the Pope has another reason for summoning the Jesuit provincial. His predecessor Pope Paul VI, who had visited Manila 10 years earlier and paid a memorable visit to a poor family in Tondo, had written in his will: "Do what men can for the Tondo woman and my unforgivable sin." Santos is given an intriguing assignment: to find the woman, and to assess if the Pope should visit the same family that Paul VI had called on.

For help, Santos turns to another Jesuit, Tim Murtaugh, who has lived and worked among the Tondo poor for years. Murtaugh easily finds the woman who had hosted Paul VI, for little had changed in Tondo and in the poor people's lives. It is Nora Morales who unravels the mystery of "the Pope's woman."

AFTER HE left her house, says Nora, she followed the Pope down a muddy alley and found a young woman holding a baby close to the Pope's face. "God forgive me, but it looked like a little monkey, a gray monkey ... its head flopped back and forth ... The woman was holding out the baby to the Pope, offering it and suddenly she pulled the baby away and ran down that alley there."

Running after the young mother, Nora asked what had happened. The mother tells her that she wanted a blessing for her sick child, but when she looked at the Pope's face, she saw that he wanted to vomit. "Can you imagine how she felt?" asked Nora. "You can't, can you?"

In the novel, the new Pope does end up visiting Tondo again, and, against the wishes of his advisers, meets not just with "the Pope's woman," but also the mother of a little girl who'd been killed by government troops in a protest march.

Murphy writes that "A Watch in the Night," though fiction, is "based in part on what people did or suffered during the martial law period." In the following excerpt from the novel, Murphy "recounts" the new Pope's visit to Tondo and the stirring speech he delivered in support of the poor and in rebuke of the rich and mighty. I don't remember any such speech during that visit, else it would have created a huge splash, but a careful reading of the Pope's more obscure phrasings would yield basically the same message. Perhaps this fictionalized account is wishful thinking on Murphy's part. Still, the message bears repeating, lest we forget that Pope John Paul II cared as much about afflicting the comfortable as he did about comforting the afflicted.

"WHERE are your women?" the Pope asked. He was all business. Murtaugh led him to the roped-off area. The mother of the dead girl wore a green dress ... Pope Paul's woman was in white. She held her new baby carelessly over her shoulder like a small sack of rice ... When the Pope held the little girl, its head flopped against his chest. He put his hand behind the child's head, with his fingers in its thick hair to steady it and looked at the pinched, gray features and the unblinking eyes. If he hadn't been prepared, he would have reacted like Paul ... He kissed the child on the lips.

"The people around waited for something dramatic, but he simply returned the child to the mother ... Then he embraced the mother of the dead girl and stomped back to the speaker's stand.

"... The Pope told the people it saddened him and the Church that so little had been done since the visit of Paul: 'Despite your efforts, your good ideas and actions, nothing is changed. This is still not a place for children ...' When he wanted to stress a line ... he paused until all sound subsided and then spoke very softly."

SANTOS heard the Pope speak the words he had written: "'We are the Church of the poor. We will listen to the voices of the poor. We will listen to their voices because others have proven to be false guides. Every person and government that have the good of ordinary people at heart will find in the Church, in this Pope, a friend and ally.'

"'We do not know all of what it means to be the Church of the poor. It may be that we must distance ourselves from the rich and powerful. Not all rich and influential people are to be avoided, but we are not as wise as Jesus who knew how to separate the rich who sought justice, such as Nicomedus and Matthew, from the others.'

"He rolled up the text of his prepared speech and pointed with it at the squatter shacks visible beyond the compound walls. 'Wrong. Not for children!' he shouted. 'Wrong in the eyes of God.' He sent Murtaugh to get the child.

"The Pope held the child while he spoke. 'Nothing is changed. What judgment must we pass? You see this child? Pope Paul came years ago when the child's brother was this age. See, this child is half dead, so was her brother then. Pope Paul is gone, but still there are these poor children ... if a Pope comes back here again and finds such children, what punishment will your Church and government deserve?'

"'I call on the government to stop its slum clearance program that punishes so many poor families. The poor are not the problem. If God is with them, how then can they be problems? We can do better. As the only Christian country in Asia we must have a program to benefit everyone. Do not kill. Do not evict.'...

"It was thrilling, the Church and the poor, a powerful voice ringing with the simple truth of the Gospel, like dawn after a night of fear and rape. At last a Pope in the full splendor of his office stood and threatened to bring God's punishment down on those who did violence to the poor."

Proud to be a Tondo Boy
By Wilson Lee Flores (STAR)
At Large : A visit to Tondo
By Rina Jimenez-David (Inquirer)
Tondo Boy Proves Pinoy Business Can Stand Firm
By Cai U. Ordinario (Manila Times)
Manila Times Editorial: Tondo
By Editor-in-Chief (Manila Times)
History of Sto. Niņo de Tondo Parish
By Ms. Rose Marie Mendoza

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