Friday, December 11, 2009

Weak and Vulnerable

Sometimes conversations linger in your mind. One did in mine. I mean the one I had with Lola Nena (not her real name) several Advents ago. She used to take care of a barangay chapel where I would celebrate Mass on schedule. I remember one rather murky Advent Sunday when I casually asked her a standard question after Mass: “Lola, what’s your Christmas going to be like?” I was caught off guard by her honesty. “Maluya, Padre…” ‘Maluya’ is the Waray’s way of saying “Nothing much”. But what struck me is what it literally means. It means ‘weak’, ‘vulnerable’. I don’t recall what I said to her but her word kept haunting me like a ghost past Halloween.

At first I thought of what she meant. That she didn’t have much money to celebrate the holidays by. That living alone and raising a grandchild almost single-handedly wasn’t exactly her idea of a ‘perfect Christmas’. That being virtually forgotten by her relatives who pretended she lived somewhere far (maybe, I thought to myself, for fear of being asked to play Santa Claus to her) and by her own children who themselves were struggling to survive in a place called Manila didn’t sound like ‘silver bells’ to her even when noisy carolers said so. That being made to subsist on what her children sent her—quite infrequently—and what she could eke out of selling ‘bibingka’ (rice cake) and ‘salokara’ (rice pancake) didn’t give much cause for singing ‘hosannas’ in celebration.

But in all this what I found even more baffling was, Lola Nena’s voice didn’t have any trace of complaining. To her everything was just a statement of fact fully noted, assessed and accepted. To her everything was said simply to answer my question.

Nonetheless, the word wouldn’t go away. In fact, it came back to me with the full force of impact not unlike a Manny Pacquiao’s left hook to the jaw (sorry for the analogy to non-boxing fans) when I saw the image of the baby Jesus being carefully placed on the crib during that Christmas Midnight Mass. Exactly. The baby Jesus struck me as ‘maluya’, as weak and vulnerable, just like Christmas as described by Lola Nena, just like Lola Nena herself and, if you wouldn’t mind, just like you and me, just like the rest of humanity.

Perhaps without meaning to, Lola Nena took me to the very heart of Christmas. The only Son of the Almighty God preferred to leave the inestimable power and glory of being at the Father’s side in order to share our weakness and vulnerability as creatures, as human beings, so he could later take us where we could share his life. Long ago it was heard that the God of Abraham was a God who loved Israel as a son. It never occurred to anyone that this God is Love itself. Nor did it dawn on sages and kings that this God didn’t just talk the talk. He also walked the walk. In fact, he walked the infinite distance between heaven and earth, between Godhead and humanity so we would have a glimpse of Love, his Love, that it is as real as the sun, the snow and the rain, as well as the joy and the pain of being human.

There were Christmases I spent in some places of opulent Europe and America as a student priest. But I must confess that I often missed the stark Christmas of Lola Nena. And I wondered why. I stumbled into an answer after one Christmas Midnight Mass in an Italian village as I watched people sang carols, shook hands while exchanging greetings and kisses, and disappeared into the night leaving behind a deafening silence. A thought crossed my mind. How easy it is to hide your weakness and vulnerability behind a multi-layered façade of efficiency, wealth, comfort, sense of power and self-sufficiency. How easy it can be to make the crib just a piece of decoration when you think you need nothing, unmindful of having received everything.

To me Lola Nena’s assessment of her Christmas nearly equaled the experience of being inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and being shown by the tour guide the place where Jesus, according to tradition, was born. I was shocked to find myself in a cave-like compartment so small, dingy, damp and remarkably unimpressive. “Maluya,” as Lola Nena would say.
The bottom line is: Love isn’t love unless it makes us weak and vulnerable, just as the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity had become. The shining testament of Love isn’t a Taj Mahal or a Palace in the Sky. It is a baby so weak and vulnerable he knows what you go through when you are hungry, tired or thirsty, when you are full of energy and happy, when you are sad or lonely.

No wonder God loves the weak and vulnerable. He used to be one himself. No wonder we should also love the weak and vulnerable. We love ourselves in them. Nay, we love our God in loving them.

Have yourself a blessed little Christmas!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Armless Christ

There is an armless Christ on a crucifix hanging on the wall facing my room. It’s been there for a long time now. The sacristan told me it was taken off the Catholic cemetery chapel’s altar after the crucifix fell on the floor, an incident that broke the right arm of the Christ image. Till now nobody can tell me where the missing arm is. And, as I pondered all kinds of stories about the missing parts of the Christ image in other places and times, including the rather expected but now-worn-out exhortatory insight that has been the stuff of homilies, talks, PTA or graduation addresses etc. (“We are the arms, the hands, the feet etc. of Christ”), I wondered if and how I could find ways to have the arm restored and the whole image repaired.

Then it struck me.

The armless Christ speaks of who we are. We are mostly a poverty-stricken people who often feel powerless (yes, armless) not only over the forces of nature exacerbated by global warming, such as typhoons, torrential and flood-causing rains, earthquakes etc. but also even over our seeming inability to find solutions to problems, like bad governance, corruption and a tainted culture which feeds it. For instance, in my home province of Eastern Samar we have been badgering our leaders to have our roads repaired only to find piecemeal responses (only selected stretches are repaired), following standards that even simple common sense sees as way below par (how about new asphalted roads that already have craters or those that feel like you are sailing over a rough sea?). And, lest I be accused of being too parochial, how about a fundamentally sound economy that little translates into good economic conditions for the people? Or how about claims of our having democratic elections that, in reality, are not decided by the ballot and informed choice but by money, celebrity or personalized transactional politics?

The armless Christ speaks of why we are where we are. The missing arm is what we do not extend to one another. It sometimes takes powerful disasters to interrupt our bad habit. But most of the time Christ’s right arm is missing because ours is missed by others who need it. We are busy taking care of our families, our hometowns, our province, our region. We forget about nation and country. We are active parts busy ignoring the whole. It could be argued that we are an archipelago geographically, politically, psychologically and, hence, culturally. Nonetheless, our present conditions only reinforce the truth that we can only sink unless we swim together.

The armless Christ points to where our salvation lies. The right arm is missing. Mostly what is missing in the country—and the world, for that matter—is a ‘strong republic’ sense of what is right in our politics, economics and social relations. We have to begin restoring ourselves by being and doing right. Right is not decided by might, sight or fright. Right is decided by what is already inside our hearts, nay, in a special center called ‘conscience’. It is decided by what brings us closer to the One who speaks in it and towards the ones with whom He asks us to be one in faith, hope and, most of all, in caritas—yes in that love which Vatican II says we are called to be perfect in order to be holy.

Now I see your eyes wide open as if to ask: “You’re saying all this just because you saw an armless Christ?”

Maybe. But here’s one more. Our Christ has no right arm because it is out there busy saving people—not excluding ourselves.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

On being Pinoy during the time of calamity

SOME of our kind say that being Pinoy is almost synonymous with ‘calamitous’. And, like it or not, there are tons of reasons behind their saying so.

First, there is the reality of our predictable, permanent, yearly visitors’ program reserved to the most unwelcome tourists, namely, TYPHOONS and their notorious relatives, such as flood-causing rains, life-and-property-devastating winds, diseases, family displacements, unemployment, rise of criminality. I might have missed mentioning their other relatives but I swear Pinoys never miss them one bit. As far as most of us are concerned the only other thing worse than being in the path of typhoons is being unable to relocate the country to, say, somewhere below Hawaii.

Then there is also our calamitous politics that largely runs on our patronage and transactional culture for fuel. For the educated Pinoy this one is among the most frustrating occupants of our National Hall of Shame because it keeps on leaving the hall in order to incessantly ravage and possess our people who transfer its bad spirit on to our politicians. The culprit, we all realize, is less our poverty than our stubborn resistance to change a deeply-ingrained quid-pro-quo cultural mindset. You want my vote? not a few voters seem to say. Then give me my advance share of your lucrative access to our money once in power. Even well-meaning politicians are aghast over this hushed-over disease but eventually succumb to contagion. Money is expected to abound on the way to next year’s elections, our poor could behave like ‘instant millionaires’ destined to be ‘instantly impoverished’ in subsequent days. Could massive, no-nonsense voter education programs such as those being contemplated by many sectors, including the Church, help? Something in me aches to think so. But reality check might dampen our enthusiasm. For a good start, we should collectively pray for a miracle to cure the moral cancer inside our culture that basically wrecks havoc on our spirits.

We should not by-pass our chronically challenged (read: lack of a) sense of discipline. The massive environmental pollution in our urban centers and our ubiquitous traffic mess (“Why are Filipinos unable to obey traffic rules?” many foreign visitors ask in bewilderment) are classic cases in point. I wouldn’t be surprised if, upon honestly assessing the latest flood disaster in various places in Metro Manila, we will simply acknowledge a simple truth: we are mostly the cause of the disastrous effects we see around us. We do not dispose of our garbage properly. We hardly follow building rules for our houses and establishments. We do not observe our own traffic rules. Now we literally reap the whirlwind.

No, I don’t believe in mere self-flagellation. I believe in acknowledging the truth, which is why we need to talk turkey about ourselves, as, I believe, I had tried to above. But there is also so much that is good in being Pinoy. We need not mention how but, especially during the time of calamity, we also show our better selves.

We keep on rediscovering we can be heroes by our simple ‘bayanihan’ spirit, ‘bayani’ meaning hero. Neighbors rescuing, feeding and sheltering neighbors are a staple story in our every disaster experience, not excluding that from ‘Ondoy’. When my sister’s family residing at De Castro, Pasig City, ran out of food as they were battling more than ten-feet flood, their neighbors came to offer a share of the little food they had. Scenes like that were multiplied in many other neighborhoods.

We also happily realize the power of praying together, the living praying together, the living asking the prayer of saints or simply invoking the all-powerful name of ‘Jesus’ to spare fellow Pinoys and the whole country from further suffering born of the much-hyped Super-Typhoon ‘Pepeng’. When my sister panicked on seeing flood waters reaching their house’s second flood (thank God, they have a second floor), with the rains continually pouring, I counseled her to keep calm and to pray with me. After fifteen minutes, she texted back and informed me that just as she finished the rosary, the rains stopped. “Please offer our dawn rosaries specifically for the super typhoon to spare our people in Luzon,” I beseeched some parishioners after morning Mass. I saw most nodding in deep sympathy. Wonder of wonders, ‘Pepeng’ veered away from its feared route, even if Northern Luzon was eventually hard hit. The point is that Pinoys rediscovered the power of praying together, something that even a political phenomenon like Edsa 1 showed them.

Most of all, people like us in Samar Island who think we know most what typhoon victims go through, now could offer our most profound sympathy, for a change. We have been typhoon victims ourselves since time immemorial. As my small barangay parish prepared to send the little aid we can afford to our brothers and sisters in Metro Manila, I remembered, as a child, horrible typhoons that twisted and felled down our coconuts, trees, crops and houses. Yet we simply picked up the pieces the next day. There was very little evidence of government-sponsored rescue operations. And I don’t remember anyone complaining about it. We simply relied on family, neighborhood and community. Recently a true-blooded Eastern Samarnon whose name I wouldn’t wish to mention here in print made a remark: “I used to have a classmate in Manila who kept on asking me a question I often took for an insult: ‘Ano ba ang bagyo?’ (‘What is a typhoon?’). I’m sorry to know his area was recently flooded. But, at least, I see one positive spot here. I don’t need to answer his question anymore.”

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Cross We Often Would Rather Avoid

For me September is not only the month when summer is practically gone. It’s also the month when the Feasts of the Exaltation of the Cross and of Our Lady of Sorrows come knocking on our fun-engrossed vacations with somber reminders. One, it’s not pleasure that is the center of our universe as Christians; two, it’s the cross of Jesus Christ. Three, pleasure doesn’t necessarily spell joy; four, nor does the cross necessarily exclude it. In fact, the Christian faith makes us aware of how the cross brought us the joy of salvation. A few summers ago I was a subway- and bus-rider in NYC not only because the parish I was assigned to had no extra car for a guest priest like me but also because I found public transportation the easiest way to get around the Big Apple. It could be, pardon the pun, a cross too. And here’s the irony: It’s in the subway trains and the buses of NYC that I’ve realized with the force of visual clarity how far the cross has come. From being a symbol of crime and an object of shame in the time of Jesus when Rome crucified criminals and rebels the cross has become an object of fashion I often see worn on necks, ears, wrists etc. of other subway- and bus-riders. I don’t know, though, how far our understanding of it has gone.

Our world has always been opposed to what the cross stands for. That’s a given that stares us full in the face. We live in a world that worships convenience, comfort and quick satisfaction of wants, more than of needs. If science and technology could, we’d all be freed from any pain or suffering. But I always remember how sobering sounded the words of an old song (that I rarely hear these days): “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden along with the sunshine. There’s got to be a little rain sometimes.” It reminds us of the voice of God through the prophets and, most of all, through his Son. My former pastor at St. Barnabas Church, Msgr. Francis Xavier Toner, who himself went through a lot of pain (he had a type of aneurysm) before going ‘home’ to the Lord, was known for a signature saying when referring to life itself and particularly to Christian life: “It’s not easy!” For him the cross isn’t simply the center of worship; it’s the very stuff of life that we must embrace. But its meaning lies in Christ Crucified.

This is exactly what our human nature rebels against. We want everything easy: from the way we’re served food (“fast food”) to the way we’ll receive salvation (“instant, struggle-free salvation”). This last has particularly made some Christian evangelizers make compromises. They tell you straight on television, “Just believe in Jesus Christ and confess in your heart that he is your personal Lord and Savior and, presto, you’re saved!” I find this personally confounding because it contains a truth that is so constantly hammered on and made to appear it’s the only truth about the Christian life. But to that I often would want to say, “Is that right? And what about the hard saying of Jesus that if anyone wants to follow him, he must deny his very self, take up his cross and come and follow him, that’s the staple of the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke?” The kind of Christianity we often want is founded on what the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen called “the cross-less Christ” because we often see in life only the “Christ-less cross”. But the real Christ is the Crucified One; the only glorified cross has Christ on it.

Israel, too, thought life would be easy after Egypt. But when the Israelites were tested in the desert by hunger, thirst and the harshness of the terms of the covenant—we were never alone in struggling with the Ten Commandments, for example—they started longing for the fleshpots of Egypt. Better to be slaves wallowing in satisfaction, they collectively thought, than liberated but agonizing in the pains of living up to the expectations of Yahweh. The deadly saraph serpents reminded them of the terrible consequences of separating from God. Which is what sin is all about; it’s not God who punishes but the consequences of our rebellion because they spell what separation from Life itself is. But it was a bronze serpent that saved the afflicted Israelites when, as instructed by Moses, they looked up to it from their agony (Numb 21:8-9). Jesus himself relates it to his cross, its most profound meaning. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (Jn 3:14). In the desert God provided Israel a remedy from the very source of its affliction. That points to the irony of the cross too: the symbol of death and shame became transformed into our source of life and salvation.

A priest that I know once surprised his congregation one morning of Sept. the 15th. While giving his homily he asked them to stand to commemorate a most poignant moment in the drama of salvation: Mary “standing by” at the foot of the cross (Jn 19:25). To stand by is to be in a state of readiness. Mary was always in a state of readiness for her Son but, especially like him, for the Father’s will. The sequence after the first reading on the Feast of our Lady of Sorrows says it poetically: “At the cross her station keeping stood his mournful Mother weeping, close to Jesus to the last…”

That tells us the place where we, too, should be.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Cry not for the Icon

ERICc Hoffer once wrote: “How frighteningly few are the persons whose death would spoil our appetite and make the world seem empty.”

I submit that the statement is mostly true. On the other hand, President Cory Aquino was, doubtless, one such person. News of her parting certainly spoiled many Filipinos’ breakfast last August 1, 2009 and has left such a void not only in her family but also in her country, one that even fewer will ever consider attempting to fill. It could even be asked if there would be, among our present crop of leaders, those who would measure up to her standards of public service. Now that she has left this side of life people have, virtually in a wink of an eye, realized what precious human jewel the country, nay the world, has lost. She has been variously called “an icon of democracy”, “the Joan of Arc of the Philippines”, “Mother of Philippine Freedom”, “a leader who combined power and virtue” and many others.

I know that much has already been said and written, and will still be said and written, of her and her significance to the Philippines and to democracy the world over. Death somehow makes appreciators of the dead those they leave behind. Not that it is a sign of ingratitude, rather only of the natural oversight we often make of fellow humans who still breathe the same stale air of earthly reality as we do.
Among the many voices that we now hear or read on how we are to see President Cory Aquino’s meaning and significance to us Christian Filipinos who deeply care about their country, let me add mine.

I agree that she was an icon of democracy. But she was also more. To me she was a living sign of the challenge of Christian discipleship in the contemporary effort to positively transform society according to gospel values. Even when her adherence to Catholic teaching on certain policies of her government could be doubted, one would be hard put to question her sincere desire to serve the poor and make the government institutions strong and independent enough to be truly democratic. Praying presidents we have had many. But praying presidents who validated their prayerfulness with morally unquestioned acts of governance we are not sure to count with our fingers. Still, how blessed we are that there was one President Corazon Aquino. In a word, for contemporary believers she could be an embodiment or, at least, a reminder of the Vatican II vision of the Catholic lay faithful, not one who separates faith and (secular) life, but rather brings that faith right into her/his acts of social engagement.

That she was a woman and a wife with an elite family background had been made much of by friend and foe alike as among her minuses. But she transformed them into pluses because, precisely as a woman president and a former wife of a senator, she courageously stood up to serious coup attempts and the difficulties of rebuilding democratic institutions to meet the nation’s so many serious problems and needs. Even as she was being faulted for her inability to turn her back on her own elite background as the reason behind the lack of true land reform during her watch and beyond, yet she disarmed critics by her simplicity and numerous quiet efforts to help countless poor people through micro-financing and other poverty-alleviation efforts through non-government organizations. She remained true to her declaration that her stepping down from the presidency would not mean ceasing to be involved in safeguarding the welfare of her country. She left government but she did not stop being a leader in espousing causes that, in her view, uphold that welfare.

In a political culture that feeds on greed and ambition for power she dared to say “Maraming salamat at paalam (Thank you so much and goodbye)” to the highest office of the archipelago with no visible hesitation. That she did so even when her own critics admitted that she could argue against being covered by the constitution’s term limit of six years for the presidency precisely because her government pre-dated the very constitution it helped establish spoke volumes of her strength of character and her admirable detachment from the intoxication of power. In President Cory Aquino we realize that a person does not have to be materially poor to be considered, to use biblical language, among the “anawim” or the ‘humble poor of Yahweh’. Often looked down upon, perhaps even despised, by her harshest critics for being a woman and a simple wife, she, like Mary, was a visible testimony to the Magnificat truth, to wit: “[The Lord] has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly” (Lk 1:51-52).

Above all, her prayerfulness, compassion especially in regard to the poor, sincerity of intention to be of service to what is best for the country even if it meant standing against former allies and friends to uphold moral governance evince a noble Christian heart. President Cory Aquino now completely has what Michelangelo once called the “two wings that bear the good person to heaven”, namely “love and death”. Of her it is worth listening to St. Cyprian: “Our brethren who have been freed from the world by the summons of the Lord should not be mourned, since they are not lost but sent before.”

No, don’t cry for the icon. She is not asleep. Rather, she has finally awakened to never-ending day. Cry for her nation instead—to the God in whom she lives, that the light she left behind may not cease shining in this country’s darkest places.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Greed and Ambition

“Power corrupts,” so says Lord Acton, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I disagree. It is not power that corrupts. We corrupt power by our greed and ambition. We corrupt power by subjecting it to the unrelenting drive towards self-preservation, such that, rather than serve the common good, power is used so as not to lose the inherent advantages it brings. That’s how Cha-Cha proponents and its main beneficiary look to many Filipinos and, no matter their efforts to assuage the massive mistrust Cha-Cha has generated, it helps very little that the inexplicable rush taken in the adoption of its legal measure was done under cover of “night” a la Judas when, also at “night” according to the Scriptures, he inflicted his terrible treachery on Jesus.

Haste indeed can make waste of truth and our most cherished democratic principles of participation and freedom. But people of faith that we are, looking into what propels the Cha-Cha train is in order not only because we need to confront the real specter behind its mask but also because they represent twin root-causes of our personal and social ills in this beautiful land.

Once I was watching a television footage of a vast crowd in a totally unrelated rally when I spotted a poster that seemed to highlight a message for Everyman but especially for those who have almost ninety percent of the wealth and power all over our Un-Strong Republic: “The world has enough goods to serve our needs but not our greed.” Greed? Yes, the inordinate desire for and accumulation of the world’s goods meant for everyone. And why is it at the root of our social malaise?

Nothing explains better the unacceptable gap between the wealthy among us who are very few and the very poor who are so many. How else do you explain that these same wealthy families also hold, in the main, political power all over our benighted republic and are unable to let go of it—and there is just a dizzying number of instances to prove it—unless to another family member, blood or political. Nothing explains better than greed the huge sums of public money being lost to graft and corruption committed mostly by the already wealthy and powerful. If they already have so much, what, we must ask, motivates them to get what in justice already belongs to the greater majority of our people who still have to contend with each other for a piece of the crumbs that fall from their tables?

Greed is the black hole inside our souls when God does not find a home in them. It gobbles or tries to gobble up everything and scarcely achieves satisfaction. When power and wealth become substitutes for God, the black hole syndrome ensues. After all, one of the spiritual masters of all time, St. Augustine, in his oft-quoted prayer, constantly counsels us that our hearts will be “restless” unless they rest “in Thee (God)”.

All this sounds perfectly logical, you say, but what about ambition? What’s wrong with being ambitious? Isn’t it what thrusts humans to excellence? I agree, there is no discounting that ambition is behind human beings who dream big and eventually achieve their deepest potentials. But ambition is like an inner weapon that a person can use for good and for ill. Ambition can make a leader do all he can to obtain for his dirt poor barangay the best road system for their crops and services. Ambition can push a poor lad to go through years of struggle and difficult sacrifices to finish a college education and end up a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer or what have you.

But ambition can also be responsible for secret political machinations and conspiracies to catapult or extend some people’s hold on power. Ambition can also blind the wealthy and powerful to the primary purpose of political and economic power that transcends narrow selfish or family interests, such as service to the needs of people and society such that they collectively become an anticipation of God’s kingdom. Ambition can transmogrify an otherwise decent human being from someone building a good legacy to the next generations to someone bent on making himself/herself the perpetual legacy even to unwilling present and future generations.

A story is told of an overly greedy and ambitious man who died. After passing through St. Peter’s strict preliminaries at the Pearly Gates, the Almighty Himself summoned him to his presence and assigned him a place at the you-know-where. St. Peter noticed something strange and he asked God about it. “Heavenly Father,” he paused, “may I ask why you did not rise from the heavenly throne, as you usually do, when you met Mr. A?” At this God sighed and said, “Peter, why would I give that poor man an opportunity to grab my throne?”

In fact, we know that God’s throne deep in our hearts is what greed and ambition can and do grab away. No wonder the Philippines and the world are what they are today.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Shooting the rapids to "Bagong Baryo"

RECENTLY I was installed new pastor of the Parish of the Assumption of Our Lady in Bgy Lalawigan, one of two barangay parishes born of the Borongan Cathedral Parish. Even days before I left my former parish a kindly elderly man paid me a visit twice to make sure I was informed about the agreed upon date of his barangay’s yearly celebration of San Isidro Labrador’s feast scheduled on the third week of May. I simply called him ‘Mano Mayong’. I asked what his barangay’s name was and how far it was from the seat of the parish.

“Bagong Baryo,” he said, pausing. “Modesty aside, Padre, it’s a barangay I founded in the seventies and the farthest in the parish. But don’t you worry, Padre. You’ll get there in a little more than two hours.”

I asked the former pastor what he thought and he said: “No. Three is more like it. Enjoy the ride.”

Soon everything about the place intrigued me and I asked some parishioners what I needed to know as a first-time visitor. What I heard both challenged and scared me.

It was almost a quarter past nine in the morning of May 20, 2009 when we left Bgy Camada by motorized banca. May 21st was Bagong Baryo’s fiesta and I had to spend the night there for the eve’s liturgy. Suribao River beaconed like the Amazon. I may be exaggerating but I think it is our Amazon. I felt fully oriented about what lay ahead. But the calm of the waters lulled me. When the jolt came I was in a stupor.

“First station,” said one of my companions, a teacher on a break, laughing. What that meant became clear to me when the men, except the boatmen and myself, disembarked and hit the river bank to walk to the calmer spot where we would pick them up. We who stayed on the motorized banca braced ourselves up for the rapids. I watched the river running wildly, almost violently, against us. I realized we were moving squarely upstream. I breathed in and forgot about breathing out. The boatmen steered the banca through rampaging waters. Silently I uttered a prayer asking the Lord to get us safely through. To my credit I also asked San Isidro, Bagong Baryo’s patron saint, to do his share in praying for our safety. My relief was palpable when we made it. I said thanks to the Lord and to the farmer saint.

But the first station was soon followed by a second and a third, a fourth and a fifth until we reached the spot called ‘Hilangris’.

“This is where people shriek and cry out when they go through the rapids,” Enyeng, our guitarist, told me. “That explains the name.” In fact, to me the name ‘Hilangris’ sounded like ‘hinagpis’ (Tagalog for ‘groaning’). Again the men disembarked to lighten up the boat’s weight against a most unusual sight I’ve ever seen—the rampaging waters looked to me like giant boiling bubbles over which we were soon helplessly tossed about but bravely carried forward by the now feverish sound of the boat’s motor. Twice in our whole trip the motor’s blade hit a rock and twice we had to stop to replace it.

Then, to my amazement, I was enjoying the intervals in between the rapids. The river was like a witch. It could be calm and enticing when it wasn’t on a rage. The lush greenery of the rainforest on the way to Bagong Baryo and the sheer diversity of flora mesmerized me. From time to time I could see water falls by the river banks. I thanked God for Eastern Samar’s underdevelopment. Otherwise we would have lost these treasures by now. But in no way does this mean we have no predators. In fact, on the way to Bagong Baryo we passed by at least three groups of men loading countless sacks of the Suribao River’s gravel and sand into big motorized boats. Unscrupulous construction businessmen, I said to myself, with some local officials probably in cahoots. They were the river’s human rapids.

Before I was lost in my thoughts again I found us finally stopping by a small river port. ‘Bagong Baryo’ looked to me like an old village out of nowhere. The huts and concrete stairs leading upward to its inner recesses greeted us like ghosts of a bygone era. Unwashed faces of children and adults registered questions more than ‘welcome’ as they met our eyes. Poverty was written all over the place. Virtually only two houses had a functional toilet, including the hut where my group and I were “assigned” to stay. You would think they haven’t been touched by civilization yet. But as I cocked my ears to what the young men were singing, I could make out some of the latest pop and local rap music.

But the thought that possessed me was that I have finally arrived at ‘Bagong Baryo’. I saw myself in the shoes of a missionary some centuries ago. In fact, my homily was already playing in my head even before I celebrated the Eucharist which, I was told and understandably, is a rarity. I looked at my timepiece. It was 12:15 PM.

“Bagong Baryo,” I spoke later, my voice booming through a decrepit speaker, “thank you so much for your welcome. My name is Fr. Euly B. Belizar. I’m your new Cura. But let’s not talk about me. Let’s talk about you and your barangay. ‘Bagong Baryo’ (New Village), to me, is a symbol of the ‘New Jerusalem’ which is also a symbol of heaven, God’s kingdom. Do you know why? Because I realize that coming here is so much like going to heaven. Let me explain. Coming here means going against the river’s currents and the rapids. And that is exactly what going to heaven also entails. It means many times going against the currents of the world’s and the Filipino cultures. On the one hand, we have a culture that glorifies money, pleasure, violence, power and everything material obtained by any means. On the other hand, we have a faith that urges us to turn away from selfishness and pride and to take up the often heavy cross of our Christian identity and its responsibility to proclaim the gospel in word and action. If we want to reach our real home, just like when you want to reach your home, we must be ready to shoot and go against the rapids…”

I was met by Mano Mayong and his wife after Mass. “Padre,” they told me, “we were almost outvoted by those of us who didn’t want to invite the priest and have the Mass and baptisms. But we refused to give in. We will never allow, as long as we are alive, a fiesta without the Lord’s Word being preached and the Lord’s Body being given.”

Only then did I realize how every rapid was worth shooting after all.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


THAT is the local lingo among some of us diocesan priests when we talk of changes, which often mean transfers, in our (parish or other) assignments. This is where we are now in my home diocese. I was probably absent during the priest’s assembly in which the word was adopted and soon gained fame or notoriety among priests. Webster explains the word ‘reshuffling’ in terms of ‘redistribution’ or ‘restructuring’ of various elements within a system, as when a prime minister ‘reshuffles’ his cabinet. I ask myself if our almost natural penchant for the word could indicate our having allowed some invasion by the political into the realm of the sacred. But then again I realize how naïve I could be for asking the question in the first place.

But what does ‘reshuffling’ mean in concrete? I look at the books, sheets of paper, letters, notes, envelopes, cards, cds, DVDs and just plain trash all about my room that I am trying to sort out so I could pack up those I will be bringing home or to my next assignment. It is then that I receive an urgent message about an article I need to submit pronto, to which I could only utter, “Oh, Mother most compassionate…” Still, I leave the chaos in my room aside and begin to type away my grief and joy at the thought of leaving my present assignment and of arriving at a new one.

In the first place, ‘reshuffling’ means putting on a smile to hide a disappointment over a dreaded, unexpected and difficult (which explains the first two adjectives) assignment. It means, sometimes, feigning ignorance of how some parishioners are relieved you will be ministering somewhere else (any pastor knows this part only too well). But it also means genuinely trying to find ways to console parishioners who think, wrongly of course, that you need to be rewarded for your hard work through an extension of your term. “Do we need to write the bishop a petition?” a lay leader asked me. “Please don’t do that,” I answered, embarrassed. But, for the life of me, I couldn’t tell him, “Please, if you think I have to be rewarded for my hard work (a word which could be debatable in the parish context, not to say in my own conscience), how could a reward take the form of an extension of hard work?”

It is then that I have recourse to my next act. I tell people—and frankly I have become convinced how Spirit-inspired the idea is—that the diocese needs to go through the ‘reshuffling’ of its clergy to remind us collectively of three things.

One, priests cannot become good shepherds if they do not have the Good Shepherd’s mindset. And just what is that, you may ask. I find the Good Shepherd’s words instructive: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I have also to lead them and they shall hear my voice” (Jn 10:16). The priest is not in a position to object. He is transferred because, in doing so, he manifests the Lord’s concern for the flock other than the ones he is ministering. ‘Reshuffling’ is our concrete statement of the universality of the call of salvation.

Two, God’s love is everlasting. What has this truth got to do with priests’ transfers? It is stark to me. When a pastor leaves, another takes his place. In a word, pastors are human instruments that come and go but the One who uses them to express his love for his people always walks with them. I remember a groom who requested a singer friend to sing for him to his bride the words of a song that say: “Tomorrow morning when you wake up and the sun does not appear, I will be there”. Being there for those one loves is a quality only God can really do (I’ll take objections to this but won’t back down). And, truly, he is always there for his people in particular through his priests and pastors. Isn’t this what exactly happens when, as one pastor leaves, another pastor takes his place to continue ministering to God’s people? In fact, ‘reshuffling’ is a living testament to the words of Jesus, “Behold, I am with you always until the end of time” (Mt 28:20). Priests and pastors who willingly, freely and lovingly submit to this sacrifice become instruments to the Lord’s faithfulness to this promise.

Three, everything is temporary and passing in our pilgrimage on earth. I remember being with a group of priests and we were on our way to the rice terraces of Banaue when we stopped by a church under the care of a Belgian missionary priest. He asked us where we were going. The most elderly priest among us almost immediately answered, “Father, we are just passing through.” I was kind of expecting the missionary priest to retort, “So am I.” He simply nodded with a knowing smile. That, for me, is what best describes not only the human condition but also the human aspect of all ministries, including that of ministerial priests. I find the grief of some parishioners, not excluding the priests themselves, over priests’ transfers not unlike the grief of the bereaved. In fact, a few days ago I saw some parishioners behave like their pastor who is being transferred to another parish has just died. There is an analogy of dying in priests’ ‘reshuffling’. But that is also where its positive note lies. I believe both priests and parishioners could take tremendous comfort from the words of the Lord himself: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Have faith in God and have faith in me. In my Father’s house there are many mansions. Otherwise how could have I told you that I was preparing a place for you? I am indeed going to prepare a place for you and then I shall come back to take you with me that where I am you also may be” (Jn 14:1-4).

I must confess that I’m often tempted to tell the parishioners of my next parish that we should work together so as to make the rectory I’ll be residing in become a good ‘anticipation’ of those beautiful ‘mansions’ the Lord talks about. But then they might petition the bishop to bring their former pastor back. So, up until this writing, I have prudently chosen to keep my lips safely shut.
Those who grieve over priests’ ‘reshuffling’ say: “The trouble with hello is goodbye”. But, with those who choose the upside of ‘reshuffling’, I answer back: “The good thing with goodbye is hello.”

Monday, April 13, 2009

“Running the race…fixing our eyes on Jesus”: Reflections on Heb 12:1-2

“WHAT a cloud of innumerable witnesses surround us! So let us be rid of every encumbrance and especially of sin, to persevere in running the race marked out before us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus the founder of our faith and who will bring it to completion. For the sake of the joy reserved for him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and then sat at the right hand of God” [From the Christian Community Bible] (Heb 12:1-2).

The first thing that is rather surprising about the Letter to the Hebrews is that it is not really a letter. Most scholars would say today that it is actually a written and extended homily. Unlike the letters of St. Paul and other NT letters, Hebrews makes no preliminary greeting and no mention of any particular addressee(s), be it specific persons or churches. Besides, it appears that the last part, Heb 13:22-25, was just added by another author to give the document the semblance of a letter. If I were to write my Sunday homily and towards the end added these words: “Before I park my pen, I just would like to extend to Rosita, Jose and all the kids my best regards. God bless you all. Please take good care because I care. Sincerely yours, Fr. Euly”, I would have done something that would not be too unlike the Letter to the Hebrews. Another surprising thing about this document is that, contrary to a long-held belief, it was not written by St. Paul since its style and form are markedly different from his other letters that we are familiar with. The third surprising thing is that its addressees were not necessarily simply the Hebrews but all Christians, especially those on the verge of apostasy, although there is basis to believe that originally it may have had in mind Christians of Jewish ancestry.

What is not surprising about this document is its popularity, especially among Christians who are trying to re-discover, and more deeply, who Jesus Christ is, who they are and what the journey or pilgrimage of faith in life to the heavenly Jerusalem is all about.

Let me reflect on several themes from the text that, to my mind, open to us what Hebrews teaches us on who we are, namely, as disciples of Jesus Christ.

1. “Cloud of Innumerable Witnesses”: Discipleship as a Team Effort

Hebrews speaks of OT heroes of faith in chapter 12. It makes mention of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and many others, presenting them as models of how to believe. Rather than simply focusing on the exemplary character of their lives of faith, it is also clear that this cloud of innumerable witnesses is bonded by faith in the reality we call God’s People and, precisely because of faith, links them with those witnesses of faith who are followers of Jesus Christ. Faith makes a community out of believers. In other words, these witnesses and heroes of faith are, in relation to us, fellow members of the People of God, both in the OT and now the NT. We do not stand on different grounds. We belong to the same family God calls his own. This sense of family and community among believers applies even to the seemingly exclusive unit in the Church called ‘presbyters’. For us priests in the Philippines this is especially made significant by the teaching of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines, namely: “The priests of the New Testament are by their vocation to ordination set apart in some way in the midst of the People of God…(PO 3). Priests and their ministry cannot, therefore, be understood apart from this community setting. The ordained priest does not stand outside the Christian community. He remains in the community. He is ordained for the community” (PCP II, 510). Community living is expressed in communal or team ministry. It is not only individuals but also communities or teams that live as Christian disciples serving other Christian disciples, the royal priests, as ministerial priests. Team ministries among priests are not only ideal; they are an expression of discipleship.

2. “Ridding Ourselves of Every Encumbrance and Sin”: Discipleship as Continuing Conversion.

The first thing that Jesus does in his public ministry is to proclaim: “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Good News” (Mk 1:15). Metanoia, the Greek for repentance, is a military word that means a one-hundred eighty degrees about-face from a life of rebellion to a life of obedience towards God. As an ROTC cadet I remember marching ahead of my battalion during a routine drill. We were on a grassy field and were not alone. Carabaos were all over the place, some wallowing in quagmire. We were marching directly into one, my eyes and emotions wide open with fearful anticipation. As I was about to put one step onto a mud hole, our commanding officer barked a command: “Ready, halt. One. Two. About face!” Sin is like a mud hole into which we make wrong decisions to step and then regret later what we did. That opens us to conversion. Hebrews, I think, sounds a similar reminder when it urges us disciples to rid ourselves of “every encumbrance” that is what sin is essentially, for sin hinders us, in the language of Hebrews, from “moving forward to our heavenly goal”.

In a word, we are to make an about face constantly from our wounded nature’s inclination towards rebellion and sin. Unless we make an about-face from sin discipleship would be a continuing non-reality, a sham. There are two movements in conversion: first, the U-TURN from sin; and the second, facing up to Jesus the Master. PCP II teaches us: “The spiritual life of the priest, like that of all Christians, begins with an encounter with Christ, with faith and conversion. This is the beginning of all spirituality and leads to union with God in grace, a state of being in love with God” (PCP II, 533). Continuing conversion is a continuing challenge to us priests because we are its mouthpiece. But as far as conversion is concerned, I’m reminded of the late President Ronald Reagan who said to the USSR when it claimed it was for disarmament: “We want deeds, not words.”

3. “Persevering in the Race”: Discipleship as Commitment

A friend told me of their former parish priest who must have been a hundred years old. He was celebrating his seventy-fifth ordination anniversary. As he thanked God and all the people who had helped him in one way or another, he also made a heartfelt appeal. “Please,” he said, “pray for my perseverance!” My friend and the listeners were smiling and he told me he mused, “You’re seventy-five years a priest and you’re asking us to pray for your perseverance? At one hundred years of age, what do you need perseverance for?” The truth is we need the grace of perseverance till the day we die. Or the old priest could be compared to the swimmer who crossed the body of water between Tacloban City and Basey, Samar. He was about five meters to the Basey shore when he felt the undercurrents getting stronger. So he did what he thought was right. He swam right back to Tacloban. The point is, he was almost at his goal. But he didn’t persevere. He lost the grace of commitment. That would be a tragic thing to say of any Christian disciple whoever he/she is.

There are two important moments of commitment for a Christian disciple: one, an unswerving loyalty to Jesus Christ as the Supreme Value and Treasure of life itself; and, two, a decision to bring to the future our choice for Jesus Christ and the values of the kingdom. One of my professors in College English literature was named “Ivy”. She had a suitor who sent her a card which I happened to read when it fell from her table. The card spelled her name: “I-V(alue)-Y(ou)”. I think I learned from him one aspect of discipleship which is also true to loving. It is to hold Jesus the Master as our foremost treasure and value above all others. If I truly see Jesus Christ this way in my life as a Christian and as a priest, commitment would be my natural response. Secondly, commitment reminds me of a permanent deacon I’ve met years ago, who married to someone who contracted cancer. When she was extremely ill, it was he who would bathe her, carrying her in his arms almost daily and caring for her. When friends asked him how he got the strength to do what he was doing, he said: “Well, I’m only being true to my word when I married her!” That deacon taught me how commitment made bringing the choices or decisions I made in the past (Baptismal, ordination, marriage vows, for instance) into both my present and future circumstances as well.

4. “Fixing our Eyes on Jesus”: Discipleship as Christ-Centered Living

I once had a conversation with a mother. Our topic was the hard times that we call ‘global economic crisis’. I asked her how she and her family were coping. She mentioned her fears that her husband may lose his job and her children may stop going to school. She has two children in college and that made her extremely worried about their future. We had other topics but I noticed that whatever things we talked about, she would always relate them to her husband and her children. Then it hit me. Her family is her center. When we speak of ‘fixing our eyes on Jesus’ and on Christ-centered living, I propose that we learn from her by bringing all the concerns, issues, nooks and crannies of our life, personal, social, political etc. into the same pattern: considering them always in terms of our relationship with Jesus Christ our Master and our discipleship. The document of the Hebrews unfolds to us three precious reasons why our life must be centered on Jesus Christ. One, Jesus Christ is the Word of God who reveals most perfectly the innermost being of God himself, deserving better attention than the Word of God as spoken through angels, Moses or the prophets (Heb 1:1-4:13). Two, Jesus Christ is the eternal High Priest whose one sacrifice has done away with sin once and for all, bringing about a new covenant between God and humanity (Heb 4:14-10:31). Three, Jesus Christ is our perfect model of faith because he gives us insight into the heavenly world of reality, the object of our pilgrimage of faith on earth (Heb 10:32-12:29). In Jesus Christ we see the fulfillment of the Hebrews’ own definition of faith: “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and being certain of what we cannot see” (Heb 11:1).

5. “Enduring the Cross for the Joy Reserved for Christ”: Discipleship as Sharing in the Paschal Mystery

We are taught and are always endlessly reminded in the liturgy that it is by the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that you and I are saved. If Jesus didn’t suffer and die, there wouldn’t have been any resurrection; and without the resurrection, there wouldn’t have been any salvation for you and me. Salvation is crossing from the darkness and terror of sin and death to the bright light of grace and life. When Jews ‘commemorate’ their passage from their slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land through the crossing of the Red Sea, it is remarkable how they understand and use the term ‘memorial’. For them the Passover isn’t simply mentally recalling but actually being with their ancestors as they experience God’s liberating action leading them out of Egypt’s clutches. This sense is what we Christians also embrace when we celebrate the liturgy “in memory” of the Paschal Mystery of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The past is being made present and we are with Jesus in his suffering, in his dying and in his rising. Why? Because though our Baptism we actually share in the Paschal Mystery which is our real ‘Passover’ from darkness and death to light and life. How? By the power and action of the Holy Spirit who brings to us in this place and in this time the very events of our salvation. But it is the suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ that constitute the bridge that has enabled you and me to make that crossing.

Paschal is a word that comes from ‘Pesach’ which means to cross or pass over. The ‘Pesach’ experience of the Jews is made perfect in the ‘Pesach’ experience of Jesus. On the other hand, this ‘Pesach’ experience is not a dead thing of the past; it is very much living and it is a reality in which Jesus the Master wants us to share. St. Paul reminds us of this: “Are you not aware that we who were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-4). Paul only re-echoes what the Master himself says in the gospel: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny his very self and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself” (Lk 9:23-25).

Self-denial, our old, almost endearing ‘short-cut’ term for this gospel injunction includes making concrete the taking up of the cross in our own everyday lives: a priest saying ‘yes’ to a difficult assignment or transfer from a well-loved place or community or person(s); a husband saying ‘no’ to an ego-boosting relationship with an attractive woman in order to be true to his wife and keep his family intact; a wife setting aside personal conveniences to respond to her family’s needs or to spend more time with her husband and children; a politician saying ‘no’ to personally beneficial ‘power extension’ political efforts to say ‘yes’ to the people’s true needs, and so on. The point is, there are simply an unlimited number of ways to bring the Paschal Mystery into our personal and social realities.

The sharing in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ is not because we love suffering and pain for their own sake, the document to the Hebrews reminds us. It is for the sake of the “joy reserved for Jesus Christ”. You and I know too well how easily we can miss this one. And how easily for us to even think it a bit naïve. But the reality of the Paschal Mystery is not complete without a sense of joy even in the middle of suffering, pain and crisis. Joy isn’t being immune to sadness or suffering, as Pope Paul VI used to remind us Christians of today. It’s not having a smiling face even when things are serious. It’s having a sense of the presence of God, a sense of his victory over evil, over darkness, over death from sin. Isn’t it tragic when we lose a sense of the ‘eschaton’, of what the document to the Hebrews consider the end-goal of faith: “certainty in the things we cannot see” (Heb 11:1)?

Rene Voillaume has this to say to us: “By believing in Christ we are believing in joy, by embracing the crucified Christ, we are embracing joy without knowing it, and the Cross expands within us our capacity for the happiness to come.”
St. Teresa of Calcutta has something more practical: “One filled with joy preaches without preaching.”

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

An Unlikely Hero

HE was Albert Einstein’s namesake. No less a hero but no celebrity was he. I would have been deeply honored to meet him. But when I did meet him it was too late. He was already in a coffin, waiting to be buried.

It all started when I came home to the rectory from two Sunday Masses and two sick calls. I just wanted to take a nap and forget the world for a while. But I heard some gentle knocking on my door. I wanted to say, “Please leave me alone for a while. I have to get some rest.” But I soon noticed I was dragging myself to the door. It was then that I saw this lady who behaved rather strangely.

She left her slippers on the rectory stairs. I realized it was a gesture of courtesy. Simple barrio courtesy. “It’s just about Albert, Padre,” she said. “Please allow us to bury him today. We couldn’t afford to have him embalmed for the nine-day wake (as is the local custom). Neighbors contributed pieces of wood and slab for his coffin. Please, Padre. We only have two hundred pesos. May we have a Mass for him, please?”

“Of course,” I said. Actually I just wanted to get rid of her and get my much needed rest. “Bring him at two o’ clock this afternoon.” Then she haltingly started to tell a story that woke me up the rest of the day.

Albert was her fourteen-year-old nephew from Barangay San Mateo. He was the eldest of five children. His father, a rice farmer, didn’t come up with much in this year’s harvest. And while his mother also does other jobs, such as washing laundry and selling vegetables, the family income was not enough. So he did what he thought best. He stopped schooling and got himself a job in a local bakery. He ended up mostly by the firewood-fed oven. It was tough and the heat could sometimes be unbearable. But he couldn’t and wouldn’t complain. He was glad he could work and help the family. But his body was not superman’s. Recently he ran a fever and felt weak. He asked to be excused. But his employer threatened to dismiss him if he misses work, especially that it was two or three days before the month’s end. Albert naturally didn’t want to lose his job and decided to go on working. He made it to payday. He brought all his money home and having given it to his mother, said: “Now I just want to rest and sleep…”

Albert never woke up again.

As I presided over his funeral I was both angry and depressed. “How could any human being threaten someone not even qualified yet to work to fire him just because he was sick?” But other deeper questions were raging in my mind. How could a young man with such obvious love for his family, a young man with such promise fall into a fate as cruel as Albert’s? How could his parents be powerless to even consider seeking for justice? I searched the faces of Albert’s mother and father. I saw in them anything but protest. Both have now accepted Albert’s fate as inevitable. Both now eyed me with profound gratitude for giving him a sung funeral Mass for two hundred pesos. Never have I felt so depressed over a funeral.

But I found myself continuing my homily. “Albert expresses, oh yes, Albert continues the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary. And we are all witnesses to this. The world, much less his country, has no idea that he did. But we do. But God does. And it’s all that matters. Albert has made it clearer to us what the sacrifice we celebrate during Lent is all about. May his sacrifice give his family more life the way the sacrifice of Jesus brought us a sharing in the life of God.”

I glanced at the faces of Albert’s brothers and sisters. They seemed calm. But one thing bothered me. They seemed to say to me: “Father, we know Lent. When do we know Easter?”

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Is there really hope that springs eternal?

THE present global crisis together with our own moral quagmire has many of us worried sick. We fear the consequences they bring. Not that we have experienced any relief from the state of crisis Pinoys have felt their country to be embroiled in since time immemorial. This time something is different. The whole world is also in it. And for Pinoys who always thought that “going abroad” to a world out there with endless possibilities was a way out of misery at home, nothing could be more morally damaging. Thousands of Pinoys abroad face lay-offs along with their local counter parts and, though other countries abroad offer opportunities, they may not have the skills, training or profession being demanded. Every day the government tries hard to downplay the crisis’ impact on the country. Every day facts and realities that are the stuff of news underline it.

If crisis feels like the air we breathe, suffering seems like our twin brother or sister. And, oh, he/she likes to play around and spread the mess. Almost every branch of government, from the executive to the legislative to the judiciary, is now under the thick cloud of public distrust due to mounting reports from both local and foreign observers of pervasive corruption. Worse, our social and political mechanisms meant to expose and check them do not seem to work. Congressional and senate investigations of alleged wrongdoings are mostly going nowhere.

We used to complain of the Pinoy sense of shame being not deep enough to sustain real moral values. Now even that is in danger of extinction. Still, all these bring pain to us all. They must. The pain indicates there’s still a better side of us that is yet alive.

This Lent the ancient book of Sirach, to me, is a mine of wisdom. For one, Sirach reminds us that difficulties, that is, suffering in plain language, do not come from economic or even socio-political sources alone. What’s more, they even come with efforts to toe God’s line. “My son,” it counsels, “when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials. Be sincere of heart and steadfast, undisturbed in time of adversity…” (Sir 2:1). He provides some reason for the effort: “For in fire gold is tested and worthy men in the crucible of humiliation” (Sir 2:5).
Sirach inspires hope. For an Old Testament writing, it glows with New Testament fire.

Shakespeare once said: “The miserable hath no other medicine than hope.” I couldn’t agree more. But, pray tell, old master (and may I speak to the Catholic Shakespeare), is hope enough to lift us up? And what is there to hope for, anyway?
Sirach answers better than Shakespeare. “Study the generations long past,” he continues his counsel from his time and place, “and understand: Has anyone hoped in the Lord and been disappointed?” (Sir 2:10). I would imagine that anyone who would doubt Sirach by saying, “Yes, I’ve hoped and am disappointed!” would hear a counter question: “Have you really hoped in the Lord?” The psalmist cites himself and confirms Sirach: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry” (Ps 40:2).

Hope in the middle of crisis, ah, that’s just what we need, I hear you say. Not quite, I answer. We rather need its source. If we have its source, then we would have it always. This time St. Paul seals the deal for us: “Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5).

Hope doesn’t give us salvation. But it keeps us after its trail. It protects us, too, from falling into despair. “Let us… put on the breastplate of faith and charity and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thes 5:8).

The breakdown of human and worldly sources of hope should teach us, then, to look for its more lasting Source. Only then will the words of S. Smiles truly bring us smiles again: “Hope is like the sun, which, as we journey toward it, casts the shadow of our burden behind us.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Coping with the crisis

LATELY the headlines are as much telling as they are alarming. Otherwise reliable companies report huge losses. Or that they are closing. Millions are losing jobs worldwide. Locally the country’s supposed economic resiliency, often touted by the government as something we can count on, are getting painful reality checks. OFWs are losing their jobs by the thousands; so are local workers in affected companies, for now foreign-owned ones. Hunger and criminality are on the rise. Fuel, food and fare rates continually do a see-saw. Hence, the pervading sense of gloom.

The twin products of the global economic crunch, very palpable even where we stand, are fear and a certain desperation. It’s not too hard to sense that the degree of their seriousness could be greater in families, cultures and societies habituated to more materially prosperous conditions. I find it instructive to go back to 1929 America through the eyes of the movie The Day the Bubble Burst which zeroes in on the stock market crash that led to the era of economic depression in the U.S. Then, as now, fortunes and jobs were lost, and with them, hope. Recently the tragedy of a California family, flashed globally in the headlines and promptly forgotten by the public in the cacophony of other competing news items, continue to haunt me to this day. A father who lost his job, savings and financial resources due to the economic crisis caused the deaths of all his family members and his own (he shot himself). It appears that when all hope is gone, so is sanity.

On the other hand, although we encounter cases of this sort in the Philippines, in the average Filipino psyche the father’s deed, with or without the wife’s and his children’s consent, is almost unthinkable.

I remember talking last Sunday to a group of churchgoers during my homily in a poor barangay chapel of our parish. “Naabat ba kamo hit’ krisis? (Do you feel the economic crisis?)” I asked them. They smiled and said, “(Siempre, Padre) Of course, Father.” It struck me that they could just smile at the mere mention of the crisis. Then it hit me: They have been going through economic crisis all their lives (it’s also called ‘rural poverty’). “When have we been out of a crisis, anyway?” someone asked me facetiously. “The only difference these days is that it’s now being shared by more and more people in the world.”

I say the attitude of our rural poor in that chapel has educated me on what living faith does. Material deprivation (as many of our rural folks are characterized by) does not necessarily mean an impoverished spirit. When faith is misdirected, say, when it is put in material prosperity alone or mainly, any economic crisis could understandably challenge and even ruin some people’s grip on life. “When money is everything,” our bishop, Bishop Bai Varquez, once remarked, “the moment it is lost also means everything is lost.” But when faith is rightly placed in God, the economic and whatever crisis we go through just become a test and a means of purifying that faith.

The figure who, I believe, needs to be recognized on a global scale during this time of global crisis is Job. No, I don’t mean ‘work’, that scarce commodity of these times. I mean the biblical character who lost not only all his material wealth and properties but also his family to an unexpected tragedy. But there is no parallel to his indomitable faith as is obvious in his words: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb; naked shall I return. The Lord gave; the Lord has taken away. Blessed be his name” (Job 1:21).

To that we can only say, “How true, how wise Job’s words are.” Our nakedness on the day we were born is a loud testimony not only to our dependence on God’s love and generosity for everything we now have and are but also to real freedom. Yes, the freedom that comes from attachment to God first and foremost, and detachment from his gifts, material things included. It is truly the Lord, says the wisdom of faith, who gives and takes everything away. Without him not only is everything already lost; there is really nothing to gain.

But with him every crisis does not have to end in tragedy but in courage over fear, compassion over self-absorption. This is what I see in people living in faith. And, since Job is a type of Jesus, we must find in Jesus the perfection of the right response to each and every crisis. In the way he eased the sufferings of others we must see our real program in the face of the crisis. Our program is not to simply meet our needs and remedy our sufferings but likewise those of others. In the way Jesus accepted his own sufferings and death to lead us to the victory of his resurrection, we must rediscover self-sacrifice and selflessness as among the essential keys to personal, communal, national and global recovery. This crisis, after all, as US President Barack Obama observed, “was prompted by the greed and irresponsibility of some.” It must be met by the generosity and self-sacrifice of all.

As St. Pio Pietrelcina puts it: “The most beautiful act of faith is one made in darkness, in sacrifice, with extreme effort.” That must also mean the one that the few who are rich can do for the many who are poor. That, further, must also mean the act of faith that does justice and humble, loving service especially to those who suffer the most in this and in every human crisis.

Therein lies the way to peace (personal, national and global).

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Afterthoughts on the Devotion to the Santo Niño

I MUST confess that I often have mixed feelings about the devotion to the Santo Niño. Now please don’t get me wrong. I will defend it as best as I can. But to be honest, there are times that I feel embarrassed watching the devotion’s supposed-to-be cultural or artistic expressions that seem often rooted in showbiz and tourism-related commerce rather than in authentic prayer or worship. That’s not to say that I have become a self-appointed judge or an expert on the cultural expressions of our devotions. That’s just to say that, to my mind, there are impurities in our devotions, particularly to the Santo Niño, that even an ordinary Catholic, in the simplicity of his faith, must be able to distinguish and sift from its genuine elements.

First, true devotion to the Santo Niño is definitely not in the same league as our devotion to saints. In our devotion to a saint, for example, we mainly enlist a fellow believer and disciple who is in heaven to intercede for us, to pray for us in our needs. On the other hand, our devotion to the Santo Niño is essentially aimed at praise and worship of him who, though truly human, is also truly God. It is therefore a grave mistake to treat the devotion as just one of the many we cultivate towards saints. The Child Jesus, as one Catholic school’s name rightly declares, is “divine” to whom worship, not simply veneration, is due.

Two, focusing on the Child Jesus doesn’t mean the devotion’s significance is chronological or biological. A story is told of a Pinoy non-Catholic, baffled by the devotion, asking a Catholic friend why after celebrating the feast of the very adult Jesus Nazareno every ninth of January, Filipino Catholics revert to the childhood of Jesus in the Santo Niño. “How could you go,” he asked, “from the adult Jesus backward to the child Jesus without being downright silly?” Now the Pinoy Catholic was fast on his feet, “’Igan (friend),” he paused. “You have to remember that Jesus is both God and man. As God he certainly can do anything. In other words, he can be both a child and grown man just so he could be with his people. Isn’t that the language of love?” This answer might contain some profound theology. But let’s not miss the point: The Child Jesus and Jesus Nazareno is one and the same person. The devotion to the Santo Niño’s significance is not chronological but spiritual.

Speaking of spiritual significance, we ask: Who is the Santo Niño for us?

One, he is Jesus himself, the “light of the world” (Jn 9:5). Isaiah foretold his coming in no uncertain terms. “The people who walked in the darkness have seen a great light. Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” (Is 9:1). Why so? Isaiah continues: “For a child is born for us, a son is given us. Upon his shoulder dominion rests” (Is 9:5). I have a sister who would tell me that even if she arrives home tired and weary from work, her face always lights up whenever she sees her little boy coming to meet her. Meeting Jesus the Santo Niño is infinitely different because this child, again in the words of Isaiah, is meeting the “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace” (Is 9:5). The joy born of this meeting is infinitely different (in the sense of ‘better’) too.

Two, the Child Jesus is God who has shared with us completely our own humanity. The “God-Hero” and “Prince of Peace” had become a “child with Mary his mother” being visited by shepherds and representatives of humankind, the Magi (Mt 2:11-21). The clear and simple message of the childhood of Jesus is the humility of God that humans like us need to learn again and likewise put into practice. Whenever the president or a high government official visits victims of calamities in the country, it touches many. But they do not cease to be high government officials. The president eventually returns to Malacañang and to comfortable life; so do other government officials. When Jesus became a human being, as is seen in the Santo Niño, he completely took upon himself our human condition without returning to the comfort and glory of heaven even when things became difficult and tough except after his mission was accomplished. He has truly become the ‘Emmanuel’, that is to say, “God-with-us” (Mt 1:23). Because the Child Jesus is truly man and truly God, it is most appropriate to pray to him. In fact, a growing number of people, including non-Catholics, attest to how the Santo Niño hears and answers their prayers. Stories about this, in matters big and small, abound. And it’s no wonder because this baby is Jesus Christ himself in whom God blesses us “with every spiritual blessing in the heavens”, such as being “chosen” in Christ “to be holy and blameless in his sight…predestined…through Christ Jesus to be his adopted sons and daughters” (Eph 1:3-5).

Three, the Child Jesus is a powerful gospel statement long before the gospels were written. The statement simply tells us that in heaven the greatest is the child and only in becoming like little children will we be able to enter God’s Kingdom (Mk 10:14-15; 9:36-37; Mt 19:14). Whenever I ask people why Jesus considers children the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, they almost always point to the innocence of children. But this is not quite the teaching of Scriptures. Rather the Scriptures underline the instinctive recognition by children of their dependence on others. We always see children, for instance, together with people they love and depend on: parents, siblings, relatives, friends. Only when a child is lost that that child is alone. Only when we acknowledge our dependence on God and other members of the human family will we begin to understand what heaven is all about. The song that says, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world”, now takes on a new meaning.

Four, Jesus in becoming a small vulnerable child gives us a direct call to protect, defend and care for him in the small, the weak and vulnerable among us. Worth mentioning are the defenseless, ‘poorest of the poor’ children in the womb and in abusive homes as well as the sick and the elderly who can no longer give nor be of use to society. In his Midnight Mass homily on December 24, 2006 the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, brought this point home to all Catholics. The Baby Jesus is the face of everyone who is completely under our power, utterly dependent on us to not only survive but to also grow in humanity: the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the persecuted, the oppressed. Devotion to the Child Jesus has one test: taking up the struggle for social justice and the preferential option for the poor.

Finally, it’s undeniable that the Santo Niño is tremendously popular in the Philippines. His image is seen in virtually anywhere, such as in our homes, stores, places of work, business, in cars, hotels, vans, buses, tricycles etc.

But the Santo Niño needs to be in the most important place of our lives—namely, our hearts.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Housing our homeless God

IT was uncanny (to say the least). I was with a group of parishioners, members of the Parish Pastoral Council and a few high school teenagers from one of our parish youth choirs. We were caroling for a church project that had run out of funds. My presence was calculated to ‘encourage’ generosity. I even decided to wear my clerical. And it proved to be a smart move. In more than one instance a homeowner or a member of a family would, upon hearing our voices, decide we were worth only twenty pesos (thank God that was the minimum) but, on seeing me, would apologize profusely for what apparently in their mind was almost an unpardonable sacrilege (the twenty-peso evaluation of our singing, I mean). Then the twenty peso bill would promptly be taken out of our sight and in its place would appear a five hundred or one thousand peso bill.

That together with big smiles and offers of a beverage or snack. Naturally I’m not saying we were given the same reception or treatment in all the homes we went to. But it soon became clear to me why our group was ecstatic when I decided to come along. A priest’s presence may not necessarily work miracles but something close to one is often enough. For instance, a remark from a member of our group almost bowled me over. “Receiving a response from this family is like squeezing juice out of stone,” she mused. “Now that they see a priest with us, they seem so hospitable and giving.”

In all this I would never forget coming to a rest house on a street corner. The manager seemed to me to be just patiently tolerating our presence and singing with a smirk. Apparently my presence even absolved our singing deficiencies. I don’t even recall how much she adjudged our singing to be worth. But, as we were leaving, I saw a sign hanging by the main door. “SORRY. NO MORE ROOM INSIDE”. “What a strange coincidence,” I said within her hearing. “Did a man named Jose and a pregnant woman named Maria come before us?”

I don’t remember any more what the manager’s answer was.

To be honest, it mattered little to me, as we both knew I asked the question in jest. Something else arrested my mind in its tracks. I found myself marveling at the thought of how God’s Son came into the world homeless, like the thought came to me for the first time. Maybe, I thought, if Jesus came as a Roman Catholic priest with a Roman collar, I strongly suspect (I could be wrong, of course, given today’s views on priests) he would not be met with “SORRY, NO MORE ROOM AT THE INN”.
But God’s homelessness wasn’t a phenomenon that happened on Christmas Day for the first time. I couldn’t help remembering the words of David in the second book of Samuel read on the Fourth Sunday of Advent of Year B: “Here I am living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God dwells in a tent!” (2 Sam 7:2). David was feeling downright ashamed at the utterly incalculable injustice of the situation: he, a human king, living in a splendid palace of cedar while the God of hosts, Creator of the universe, was dwelling in a tent. Even then God was homeless. And he didn’t seem to mind. He was more into making David’s house impregnable. David’s generous thought was answered by a generosity whose immensity could only be measured by eternity. The homeless God who owns all homes made David a promise that has impacted you and me. “Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever” (2 Sam 7:16).

To say that God cannot be outdone in generosity is an understatement.
That David’s offer was met by God’s “No, thank you” and “I’ll give you a better offer” response staggers the imagination. Even when Solomon finally finished the temple of Jerusalem God’s homelessness was scarcely resolved. In truth, God continued to look for a home.

Then came the Annunciation. As the archangel Gabriel slowly made clear to a simple barrio lass named Mary the outlines of God’s request that she become the mother of his Son, after her famous hesitation (“But how can this be since I do not know man?” (Lk 1:34), she let go of her other famous declaration: “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).

At last God found a home. His real home: His own people best represented by the best of the human race, “our tainted nature’s solitary boast” (Wordsworth), a woman named Mary. And her generosity was met with a return that cannot be paralleled. She not only shared her Son’s Resurrection by her own Assumption into heaven (Fourth Glorious Mystery). She was also crowned Queen of Heaven and Earth (Fifth Glorious Mystery). Even Mary’s supreme generosity couldn’t equal God’s.

And so, why do we hesitate till now to house our homeless God?