The street children of Manila have been failed by their families and rejected by society – but when Pope Francis paid a visit, they became overnight stars
When Pope Francis met Cardinal Luis Tagle to prepare for his trip to the Philippines in January he was given a very large postbag. It contained 1,000 letters and cards from rescued street children asking him to visit them at the Anak-Tnk Foundation, a Catholic charity in Manila. If he had rummaged through the bag he would have noticed that about half the letters were addressed to John Paul II (the pope left quite an impression when he visited Manila in 1995). With a bit of help with translation he would have realised that many were not requesting a visit to the orphanage, but thanking him for already agreeing to one.
The children, says Fr Matthieu Dauchez, the foundation’s director, had been sure that Francis would visit them from the start. Their certainty made him anxious. “I was afraid that he would not come,” he says.
The visit was meant to be a surprise, but in fact Fr Dauchez knew of it some weeks in advance. He announced it to the children just 15 minutes beforehand. Immediately, he says, the children started praying the rosary. “I was not able to pray because I was too stressed,” he says.
In video footage of the visit you can see Fr Dauchez in the background. A thin, pale, youthful figure, he does look a little stressed – unlike the Pope, who struggles happily as a swarm of children try to hug him.
During our meeting in London Fr Dauchez is calm and restful, the opposite of an anxious presence. His stories of the papal visit pour out one after the other. The 40-year-old French priest apologises for not letting me ask any questions but, truly, I am enthralled and do my best to keep my mouth shut.
When the Pope first appeared, Fr Dauchez says, he was “so serious. No smile at all.” But for the duration of the visit, he was smiling, and “like a grandfather with his children”, he says.
At the time, Fr Dauchez says, he did not realise how big the visit’s impact would be. In Manila the street children are used to being completely ignored. “Inside their hearts they are totally rejected. Failed by their families and by everyone. So they think that they cannot be loved any more,” Fr Dauchez explains.
But when the Pope came, suddenly, “they became the first ones”, featured “on all the TV channels in front of the whole country”. Back at school on the following Monday they were the “stars”, Fr Dauchez says. Not only are the children proud of the visit, he adds, but “the eyes of [other] people change because of this” – the street children are “the ones visited by Pope Francis, so you don’t pass by”.
Unicef reports that there are half a million street children in the Philippines. Fr Dauchez says this figure includes children who merely work in the street, selling newspapers and cigarettes, but in the evening have a home to go to. In Manila, he says, the true number of homeless children is about 10,000. Among these children prostitution is extremely common, says Fr Dauchez. “Almost 100 per cent of these children have been abused at least once,” he explains.
Fr Dauchez is dismayed by a lack of action from the government. “Nothing is moving. Society is so corrupt that, these children, they don’t care about them.” About child prostitution, the politicians have a “fatalism that we do not agree with”, he says.
Fr Dauchez is from Versailles. When he arrived in Manila as a seminarian he imagined he would stay for two years. He has now been there for 17. At some point in those early years, he says, he realised that, to give “full meaning” to his mission, “it should be for my life”.
To begin with he assumed the job was to give needy children food, clothes and a place to live. But it wasn’t that simple. The children would take the food and clothes and go back to life on the street.
Only slowly, when the children realised what it was like at the foundation, that it was a place they could “love and be loved like all the other children of the world”, did they give up on the street, says Fr Dauchez.
The real problem was not a lack of material things, he says, but that, “deep inside their hearts … something was destroyed”. He recalls a child who, wanting to have a few hours’ sleep in the street, chose to lie down next to a pile of rubbish. “Unconsciously he is thinking that he’s not a human being, he’s like only a thing, good to be thrown away like garbage,” he says. “We cannot accept this. Not because this child has nothing. Not because this child is rejected by his parents. We cannot accept this because he is considering himself like this. No, no. This is unacceptable.”
Fr Dauchez describes his work as a “mission of love” rather than a “mission to answer terrible needs”. The “greatest victory” in this mission, he says, is not when a child finishes studying or becomes a lawyer, but when they “learn to forgive their parents”. He says: “It shows for sure that he has learned how to love and be loved.” And this learning to love again is a “real miracle”, he says, more so than a blind man who gets back his sight.
Fr Dauchez says the children stay in touch after leaving the foundation, often bringing their own children to meet Fr Dauchez, “their grandfather”. It means, he says, that they consider the foundation to be their family. “For me it’s a beautiful victory,” he says.
Mark Greaves is news editor of the Catholic Herald. For more information about the Anak-Tnk Foundation, visit en.anak-tnk.org
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
‘Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed’Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)