Popes

There was a surprising little exhibit this week at Gateway Mall in Quezon City. The lobby hosting the show is not a particularly impressive space; unlike, say, the foyer of Mall of Asia in Pasay City, the area of the exhibit is less of an intentionally defined architectural feature and more of an accidentally wide opening that the building’s architects found themselves creating when they set the structure’s width. What the floor space lacks in definition, it makes up for in subtle decoration—the tiles possess a luxuriant specular sheen that sets itself apart from the usually drab flooring of less prestigious malls.

The building’s upscale accents are still not enough, however, to entirely conceal the occasion’s dissonance. There on display at the lobby were relics of soon-to-be-canonized Pope John Paul II, surrounded by writeups on his life and photographs of his visits to the Philippines. There were even kneelers, because maybe some of the faithful would be so touched by the items on display that they would be moved to pray right there, in front of all the curious and unexpecting mall-goers, to venerate the artifacts of the beloved pope. I was reminded of Pharisees beating their chests in the temple of Jerusalem, and I just hovered at the fringes of the exhibit, content with perusing the distinctly aged photos.

Pope John Paul II relics exhibit at Gateway Mall

I’m still not completely comfortable with Mass being held in commercial centers—I have questions of sincerity and ‘quality’—what more with this exhibit of revered relics in what is perhaps the foot-traffic epicenter of the metropolis. Thankfully the photos on display, as if they heard my concerns, assured me that there is a rather important historical basis for the venue of the exhibit.

The Gateway Mall was named as such because it is built next to the famed Araneta Coliseum. Nay, it is built onto the Coliseum, the mall attached to one side of the stadium like a huge barnacle clinging to the so-called Big Dome. (After shows at the dome, crowds would flow from the Dome to the stores and dining areas of the barnacle.) When the late pope visited in 1981, the coliseum served as a venue for his public appearance, and this is the subject for many of the photographs in the exhibit.

One picture caught my attention because it captured the magnitude of the 1981 visit, within the setting of the stadium. A vast crowd in dim silence, presumably silently sitting on the various ranks that concentrically form the coliseum, all facing a harshly-lit central platform where various officials and dignitaries sit, among them red-capped cardinals and, at the very center, the pope himself. We are not alien to images of the head of the Catholic Church in the center of (often massive) attention. But this was an image with a personal context for many of us Filipinos. Here was the pope, the Vicar of Christ, not in his home at the Vatican, but under the spotlights of the Big Dome, where the standard fare is not veneration but entertainment. The last time I entered the coliseum, I watched a basketball game between the Ateneo Blue Eagles and the UST Growling Tigers; others have memories of pageants, or concerts.

Pope John Paul II certainly was a popular man. This was the quality most cited of him when observers were assessing his successor, the now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. John Paul was the charming leader that masses loved; Benedict was the stern theologian that conservatives were satisfied with, at least as far as the popular analysis is concerned. I remember Pope Benedict being quoted widely for his distaste for rock concerts, saying how they can be idolatrous.

That was what I was thinking when I saw the photograph of John Paul II appearing before the mass of Filipinos in Araneta Coliseum. What a rock star, this pope was.

A first-glance recounting of the latest three popes’ personalities tells us that the Bishop of Rome has passed on from popular to relatively unpopular back to popular again. But in truth this is not a positive-negative-positive pattern. There are important nuances, for example, between the charm of John Paul II and that of reigning Pope Francis. The latter’s appeal is charged with a humility and a Third World sensibility that could actually be at odds, in principle, with how the former comfortably handled being famous.

Populist or not, we have much to learn from all these recent popes. John Paul II brought the Church closer to the world, and to the youth in particular. Benedict, the intellectual, intimately understands the modern world and its relation to the Church. And Francis, beloved this early, is bringing a much-welcome fresh spirit into the office of the head of more than a billion faithful of the world. When he elevates Blessed John Paul II into sainthood on Sunday (along with another pope, John XXIII, the one who called the historic Vatican II), it will be a moment of tremendous meaning, of the past connecting with the present, and of the present appreciating the past.

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