By Cindy Wooden
MANILA, Philippines (CNS) — The realities of life described by young people, especially the tearful question of a 12-year-old girl about why God allows suffering, led Pope Francis to set aside the first text he had prepared for a meeting Jan. 18 with the young people of the Philippines.
“Certain realities in life can only be seen through eyes cleansed by tears,” the pope said Jan. 19 after listening to Glyzelle Palomar, who used to live on the streets but now has a home thanks to the foundation for street children Pope Francis visited in Manila Jan. 16.
Pope Francis embraces Jun Chura, 14, and Glyzelle Palomar, 12, two former street children who spoke during a meeting with young people at the University of St. Thomas in Manila, Philippines, Jan. 18. (CNS/Paul Haring)
Palomar spoke after Jun Chura — a 14-year-old rescued from the streets by the same foundation — described life on the streets as a struggle to find enough to eat, to fight the temptation of drug use and glue sniffing, and to avoid adults looking for the young to exploit and abuse.
Covering her face with her hand as she wept in front of the microphone, Palomar asked the pope, “Why did God let this happen to us?”
As some 30,000 young people looked on at the University of Santo Tomas, the pope kissed the top of Palomar’s head and pulled her close for a big hug, then embraced her and Chura together.
He also listened to the testimony of two other young men and their questions: How do young people discover God’s will for them? What is love? How can young people become agents of mercy and compassion?
The pope’s gathering with the youths was emotional from the beginning. Opening the encounter, the pope spoke about 27-year-old Kristel Padasas, an employee of the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services, who died after being struck by a speaker stand knocked down by the wind Jan. 17 after the pope’s Mass in Tacloban.
She was “young, like yourselves,” the pope told the youths, asking them to join him in praying for her and for her parents. “She was the only daughter. Her mother is coming from Hong Kong (and) her father has come to Manila to wait,” he told them.
Pope Francis had received the texts of the young people’s testimonies and questions in advance and had begun rewriting his speech the night before to ensure he responded directly to what they planned to say, said Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman. There was not time to have the new text translated, so Pope Francis, who did not read from the text, asked Msgr. Mark Miles from the Vatican Secretariat of State to translate from his Spanish. After more than half an hour, he made a passing attempt to return to the original text, but only to emphasize the challenges the youth face: the challenge of personal integrity, of helping the poor and of protecting the environment.
One of the first things he commented on talking to the youths was the fact that Palomar was the only female on the program.
“Sometimes we’re too ‘machista’ and don’t allow room for the woman,” he said. “But the woman is able to see things with a different eye than men. Women are able to pose questions that we men are not able to understand.”
“Pay attention,” the pope told the young people. Palomar was “the only one who posed a question for which there is no answer. And she wasn’t able to express it in words but tears.”
“When the next pope comes to Manila,” he told them, include “more women” on the program.
Speaking directly to Palomar, he told her, “You have expressed yourself so bravely.”
While it is impossible to explain why God would allow children to suffer, he told the young people, “only when we, too, can cry” can one approach a response.
“I invite each one of you here to ask yourself, ‘Have I learned to weep and cry when I see a child cast aside, when I see someone with a drug problem, when I see someone who has suffered abuse?” the pope told them.
Being moved to tears out of compassion and in the face of the mystery of suffering is holy, he said. It is not the same thing as crying to manipulate or get something from someone.
“Jesus in the Gospel cried, he cried for his dead friend,” Lazarus, “he cried in his heart for the family that had lost its child, he cried in his heart when he saw the old widow having to bury her son, he was moved to tears of compassion when he saw the multitude of crowds without a pastor,” Pope Francis said.
“If you don’t learn how to cry you cannot be good Christians,” he told them.
In the face of suffering like Palomar’s and Chura’s, he said, “our response must either be silence or the word that is born of our tears.”
“Be courageous, do not be afraid to cry,” the pope said.
Responding to the questions of Leandro Santos II, a law student, and Rikki Macolor, a recent graduate who, with his friends, designed a solar-powered night light for typhoon victims, Pope Francis focused on love, compassion and the challenge of not just helping the poor, but allowing oneself to learn from and be evangelized by them.
“What is the most important subject that you have to learn in university, what is the most important subject you learn in life?” the pope asked. “To learn to love. This is the challenge that life offers you.”
“True love is to love and allow yourself to be loved,” he said. “It is harder to let yourself be loved than to love.”
Even when it comes to the life of faith, he said, it seems easier to love God than to really allow oneself to be loved by him. But when one succeeds, he continued, God responds with surprises.
“Don’t be like a computer, thinking that we know everything,” the pope said.
Pope Francis thanked Macolor and his friends for helping the poor victims of Typhoon Yolanda in 2013, but he asked them, “Do you allow yourselves to receive?” Putting his finger to his lips, the pope said he didn’t want them to respond immediately, but to ponder the other, essential Christian part of being with the poor, which is being willing to learn from them and to accept their gifts.
“The Sadducees and doctors of the law in the time of Jesus gave much to the people, they gave them the law and taught them, but they never allowed the people to give them something,” he said.
“Become a beggar,” the pope said. “Learn how to beg,” to receive with humility, “to be evangelized by the poor. The persons we help, the poor, the sick have so much to give us.”
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Contributing to this story was Francis X. Rocca in Manila.