"Dear young people, please, don't be observers of life, but get involved. Jesus did not remain an observer, but he immersed himself. Don't be observers, but immerse yourself in the reality of life, as Jesus did."
-- Pope Francis, July 27, 2013, World Youth Day prayer vigil in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
I grew up Catholic in the Philippines, where about 86 percent of the population has also been baptized Roman Catholic. But in recent years, after leaving Catholic high school and entering the secular state university, I've been disheartened to be a citizen of a developing country where there is no clear separation of the church and the state. I've witnessed how deceit, injustice and poverty have tarnished the church and its ministry. At one point I chose not to go to church anymore because I had lost my trust and confidence in the so-called messengers of God.
I feared what the church had become after being wracked by scandals, and I was confused by the opposing views of the church, the state and its people. Like the parable of the prodigal son from the Bible, I was a lost child who wanted to be found.
Pope Francis, the people's pope, has brought me home. He has taken a different path in leading the 1.2 billion members of the Roman Catholic Church. Francis has placed himself at the center of the issues and conversations of our time, from globalization to the role of women in society. He has become the voice of compassion.
Growing up in a conservative family, I have always been careful about the choices I make and mindful of my moral convictions. There has always been a need to fulfill the expectations and duties instilled in me. I may not have any concrete explanation for my beliefs and principles in life, but I've always been sure of one thing: I have faith because of what I have been taught, and because of what has been expected of me as a Filipino and as a member of the Catholic Church.
When I was younger, I was afraid of talking openly about sex and virginity. Marriage, for me, was a sacred ceremony shared only between a man and a woman bound by mutual affection and commitment. I was raised to see myself as a gift, and only the person I truly loved would be allowed to receive this gift. Premarital sex for me was out of the question. It still is.
But now that I'm older, I realize that I should not pass judgment on people who think and act differently from me just because of the standards set by the church on what is "moral, right and just." I've developed a more open mind about sexuality and relationships. I've encountered people who have different backgrounds, beliefs and principles. I've learned that being in a same-sex relationship here is very difficult because of how constricting our religion can be.
In the Philippines, those who engage in premarital sex or who are in same-sex relationships are labeled "immoral." Unmarried women who are no longer virgins are labeled "sluts." If you choose not to follow what the church dictates, then you become a villain who can never live happily ever after.
I think it's time for the Catholic Church to accept how our people and our culture have evolved through the years. As members of the church, we must respect and uphold the rights of every single person and must not cast stones at individuals who we think have "wronged" our religion. We are fortunate to now have a leader in the open-minded Pope Francis, who has said, "Who am I to judge?" And yes, who are we to judge?
In an age of "selfies," when many people are concerned with vanity, money and power, Francis has shown a different side of himself. He is the epitome of humility, choosing to live in a two-room house rather than at the Apostolic Palace surrounded by courtiers. He turned in the papal Mercedes for a scuffed-up Ford Focus. His willingness to be physically close to the sick and destitute is testament to his status as a true servant of our Lord. And with technology bringing the world closer, billions of people are following Francis' unusual and remarkable overhaul of the papacy. Photos of Francis kissing a disfigured man and washing the feet of a Muslim woman have gone viral, giving people around the world a new perspective on the Catholic Church.
Witnessing the way Francis reaches out not only to members of the Catholic Church but to humanity as a whole is overwhelming. Unlike his immediate predecessors, he is radically changing the way the church addresses issues such as abortion, contraception and gay marriage. He conveys his concerns and anxieties with much sincerity and hope. No red Prada shoes, no gilded cross.
Francis has said that it's not enough to proclaim we are Christians, but that we must live the faith through both our words and our actions. And that's what he is doing in his own life. He makes me want to become a better person, a more understanding sister, a more respectful daughter and a more obedient follower. He believes in the goodness of everyone, and is indeed a true messenger of God.