An epic homily as Vatican pushes into Asia

Pope Francis' five-day tour of the Philippines is essentially an epic homily that church leaders will draw from for years as they shore up their waning influence and push to evangelise Asia.

No doubt, the 78-year-old leader of the 1.2 billion-strong Catholic world has had a profoundly positive impact on the Philippines.

He campaigned relentlessly for the poor. He singled out corruption as a source of so much "scandalous social inequalities" and suffering.

These themes resonate in a nation where one in five lives on less than US$1.25 (S$1.65) a day.

With crucial national elections in 2016, the Pope's messages are even more poignant.

The charismatic pontiff also brought with him a sense of piety, renewal and introspection.

Millions watched him comforting teary survivors of last year's devastating supertyphoon Haiyan, embracing a crying child abandoned by her parents to the streets, and tirelessly engaging as many handphone-toting worshippers as he can, selfies included.

There were those who questioned the need for Pope Francis to visit the Philippines. After all, four in five Filipinos are already Catholics, making the Philippines Asia's most Catholic nation.

A pilgrimage would have made more sense in China, where a population of more than 1.3 billion and a spiritual vacuum left by eroding Maoist principles present huge opportunities for Catholicism, it was argued. (There are an estimated 12 million Catholics in China.)

But coming to the Philippines did make sense.

The Argentina-born Francis, the first non-European to become Pope in more than 1,000 years, has made Asia a new priority.

He travelled to the continent twice in less than six months, having been to South Korea in 2014.

The Vatican has been chasing after territories where the Catholic faith is spreading to compensate for those where it is losing ground like Europe and North America.

Only 3 per cent of Asia's population of more than four billion are Catholics. But that number has been growing in recent years.

As it pivots to Asia, the Vatican did well in bringing the pontiff to one of the Catholic faith's bastions, where it had hoped for spectacle after spectacle of religious frenzy meant to inspire awe and conversion among non-Catholics.

And the Philippines did not disappoint.

For five days, life ground to a halt as the nation erupted in massive displays of devotion and hero worship.

Millions choked streets and amassed in concert arenas and public parks to get a piece of the Pope, who returned the adulation by being the charismatic, grandfatherly, engaging vicar of Christ.

Everywhere he went, there were deafening chants of, "Pope Francis, we love you!"

He was "the people's pope" and "Lolo Kiko" (Grandfather Francis).

The frenzy spread to the Internet, where keyboard-pushing Filipinos made sure everything about the trip would trend on social media.

Online, even non-Catholics professed deep affection for him and, as the church probably had hoped, a tinge of faith-envy.

It indeed was an awe-inspiring tour, a well-choreographed narrative that had drama, endearing moments, as well as tragedy.

A 27-year-old church volunteer who was helping put together a welcome reception for the pontiff in Tacloban province, south of the capital Manila, was killed when a scaffolding collapsed on her as a storm bore down.

That, too, was transformed into an occasion of faith, rather than an admonition of bureaucratic carelessness.

But perhaps the most emotional moment of the visit was when a 12-year-old girl broke down and wept profusely before she could finish narrating her hard life before Pope Francis and thousands attending a youth rally at a centuries-old Catholic university.

She had been living on the streets, exposed to drugs and child prostitution, before a church-run shelter rescued her.

The child asked Francis: Why does God let bad things happen to children?

The Pope had no answer.

But, visibly moved, he stood up and gave the girl a rosary and a loving embrace.

More than any voluminous dogma compiled by a synod of bishops and holy men, that powerful scene may be enough to convince non-Catholics that this Pope may be someone they can trust to bridge them to the creator of all things.

rdancel@sph.com.sg