Wednesday, April 06, 2005

After Mel, After Pope, After Life

The 'Grimace' of the Christ, San Fernando, Pampanga
Province, Philippines, April 2004 ©Ben Razon
I took this picture last year on assignment for an Australian magazine whose article on 'real life' crucifixion volunteers here in the country was timely in light of what was then all the talk and debate about Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ'. The spectacle of this yearly event on a hot grassy knoll in the village of Cutud about 80 kilometers north of Manila couldn't have been a more appropriate point of comparison between reality and Mr. Gibson's interpretation of christianity's 'defining moment'.

But let's cut back to the present day. Here are nameless guys who've taken the vow of doing this every year at the height of blistering Philippine dry season heat, and solely for the belief that by doing this they are forgiven of their sins and blessed more than triple-fold by God and that their families and friends are spared of misfortune and ill health till, well, the next nailing of same time next year. As quaint as this may all sound, it is serious for these people, and this line of thinking is what most curious foreign observers remain struck and baffled by and perhaps only something which children and the innocents will understand.

So now we have the even more endless comparisons of the 'holy life' standard which the late John Paul II led, and everybody trying to outdo each other in voice or written line as to what they thought the former Pope did to change the world in their lifetime.

Yeah, historically as the harbinger of the end of totalitarianism in Poland and Eastern Europe, sure, and as traveling tourist around the planet to get a hint of precisely the kind of localized 'catholicism' such as here that others outside Europe and the Northern Hemisphere practice, yes. But I prefer remembering a man who, when he first assumed the papacy, was such a breath of fresh, cool air to the long-closed stuffy windows of the Vatican and who wanted just as much to keep doing what he HAD been doing incognito then.

He went skiing, fishing, swimming, and all those great things any human being loves to do, perhaps even enjoying a cold brewski now and then. He wanted to be anonymous on more occasions than less. He probably thought at one point that the way to go was to do things in a more low-profile way. There are a lot of good untold anecdotes perhaps, of what this Pope did and how he viewed the world.

That at least deserves an Oarhouse mention. But maybe not as much as when I crossed a personal path with the more ideal, less publicized face of the church in the form of a tiny, frail-looking, barefoot standing in hot noonday concrete Mother Teresa at the Missionaries of Charity compound in Tondo back in 1988, seeing her posing with some local Nissan dealers handing over a check for the continued good works of the Sisters in Manila's most impoverished area.

I was all too happy to volunteer snapping that 'passing the check to Mother' picture, and the giddy car dealers - bless their simple souls - all the while insisting that I join them for lunch afterwards at the nearby KFC and without the Saint of Calcutta in tow, of course. I politely refused as I walked around in a daze for a week afterwards, relishing my lucky private encounter with 'the Mother'.

These funny and awkward coincidences of life and faith goes on, right here, right now, and right up your Mel Gibsons, your Holy Sees, your Nissans, and your KFCs.

- Ben
April 6, 2005

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