THE EVIDENCE is incontrovertible. The past two days in the Philippines (as of this writing) proved that no living world leader can match Pope Francis as a master communicator.
It is not only the flood of images that convinces: the thousands of people lining the route taken by the Pope day by day; the forest of lights from mobile phone and tablet screens that spring up to preserve the papal blessing; the unprecedented decision of national media, particularly the television networks, to devote hours of coverage and valuable air time.
In the digital age, images trump words any time. In fact, images are the messages. We have a lifetime of images to replay when, after the five-day visit of the Pope is over, we will reexamine the memories left by the man that has gracefully inserted himself in our affections.
Many of these images were minutiae magnified by mass media, such as the country’s first glimpse of the pope through the window of his plane, which also revealed the pope as eager as a boy to peek at the estimated millions celebrating his arrival. “Welcome home,” the greeting opening the Jan. 16 meeting with families in a Pasay mall, didn’t seem like a hyperbole or an inaccuracy for the pope who, in his first visit to the country, acted like an OFW returning to family.
In the digital traffic, images, though powerful, have short lifespans. But Pope Francis, as with other great souls like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela, has a special quality that imbues ordinary objects and passing instances with meaning, transforming these into symbols and signs.
Take the papal skullcap that has become an iconic motif in the papal sojourn in the country. A gust of wind blew away the white cap when Pope Francis was about to disembark. Losing this official emblem did not faze the man, who held the crowd’s heart and mind with the upraised palm of his hand and an untiring smile that suffused the darkness cloaking the masses waiting for hours.
During the meeting with families, the pope donned the cap made for him by a matriarch, to whom he gave his own skullcap. It was a gesture breathtaking in its humanity, demonstrating the humility of acceptance and of giving back. This family possesses what may become a sacred relic when the pope will “surely” become a saint, excitably predicted the priest commenting in a TV network’s coverage.
Pope Francis has such power to transform. When he hugs and kisses infants and children, we sigh and cry, ignoring that we are watching on TV and forgetting the nauseating memories of politicians doing the same crowd-pleasing antics to woo voters.
The pope inspires. Watching the hundreds of thousands that wait for hours but stay disciplined for a second’s glimpse of the pope, we are awed by the man’s ability to bring out the best in people. Game enough for selfies, the pope has asked that instead of his image splashed on tarpaulins, Jesus, Mary, and the saints should be the focus. Effortlessly popular, he is not afraid to fall out with the crowd.
So we agree. The Pope is not a rock star. To honor someone whose public acts are seamless with his private values, we look no farther than the image etched on the silver cross he wears, a man leading a flock of sheep: Pope Francis, shepherd.
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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s January 18, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”