Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Of mission and being missionaries

Reflections for World Mission Sunday, October 17, 2010

LET me tell you about Ate Melanie (not her real name), a distant relative. You would think ‘distant’ is an apt word because she and her family live on the far side of my hometown. I remember watching her when her son Jojo was stricken with tetanus. I thought she was desperate when she asked me to give him the Anointing of the Sick. It struck me that her son’s every spasm of pain also registered on her face and body. She was always by his side, forgoing eating or sleeping except when she was half scolded by her older siblings to do so. From her I saw the power of a parent’s love. It is a power that enables one to share in a loved one’ pains. If Jojo was celebrating a happy moment, you would have seen his happiness on her face too. Also that power enables a person to endure, even cast aside, one’s own suffering or hardship to bring relief to a loved one. Consider this: Ate Melanie, sleepless and hungry, pestering her son’s doctor and nurses just so that her son may be saved from death.

Jojo eventually recovered. Only then did I see a smile on Ate Melanie’s face.
I often think of Ate Melanie when I think of mission. The love that impelled her to go through anything or, as they say, “do anything, come hell or high water”, is to me symbolic of God’s love that pushes us on to mission. This is how I picture our whole situation. God sees our terrible suffering when sin has separated us completely from him. His heart bleeds. In response he sends his only-begotten Son, his most precious jewel, enduring the immeasurable pain of losing him from heaven’s infinite security and glory. As though being exiled from heaven was not enough, the Son, the first Missionary, had to endure poverty, hard work, obscurity, later misunderstanding and, worse, rejection from the very people whose loving acceptance was a logical response because they were the first object of God’s love. It’s small wonder then that the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, stresses the power of this love in his Mission Sunday message this year. We who engage in mission need to ever savor and allow ourselves to be like a collective sponge and soak ourselves in God’s love. “Nemo dat quod no habet,” our Scholastic professors constantly told us in college seminary. “Nobody gives what he doesn’t have.” I believe we should ask ourselves constantly: If God’s Love is not in me, how can I even try to proclaim it? “It is only from this encounter with the Love of God that transforms our existence,” the Holy Father insists, “that we can live in communion with Him and among ourselves and offer our brethren a credible testimony, giving reason for our hope (cf. 1 Pet 3:15).”

The power of God’s love is at work in the way he answers the prayer of Moses being supported by Aaron and Hur in our first reading this Mission Sunday. In a real sense the love of Moses as well as of the men supporting him for their own people merely reflects the love of God for Israel, and for us. It is the all-powerful love of God that saves Israel from the forces of Amalek just as it is the all-powerful love of God that saves us from the forces of sin and death. It is this love that makes Israel a community anticipating that community of God’s Love we call the Church, a community approached by representatives of the human race with the request: “We wish to see Jesus (Jn 12:21)”. The power of God’s love is also at work in the widow of our gospel endlessly, relentlessly pestering an unjust judge for her just rights. We need to imitate her in relentlessly pestering our unjust world for justice to our poor, hungry and downtrodden. In fact, this power needs us, our bodies and spirits as disciples, as its instruments, as its servants.

Because our bodies breathe, we live. When our spirits breathe, what they do is pray. Prayer is our spirits breathing in God’s breath, God’s Ruah, the Spirit. And the Spirit? He is “God’s Love in Person” according to Pope John Paul II (Dominum et Vivificantem, n. 8). Because of this the Spirit is also the “principle of evangelization” (DeV 45). Prayer therefore is key to mission. It is our life-blood. When we don’t pray, like Moses’ hands falling down, we also fail in our missionary responsibilities. The Spirit does not enliven our efforts, we end up becoming the donkey pursuing people’s hosannas that truly belong to the One on our back.

True prayer teaches us humility. ‘Humus’, the root of humility, reminds us of the earth from which we came and with Abraham we exclaim, “I am bold indeed to speak like this to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes” (Gen 18:27). It teaches us that, contrary to our own feelings of self-sufficiency especially after experience, study and immersion in people’s lives have enabled us to forge strategies and approaches that confidently ensure success, everything still depends on God. It is his love that we must, in the words of the Holy Father, “make visible”, not the efficiency and glory of our talents and abilities.

As I write I must confess that I’m a bit struggling with fear. My responsibility as pastor calls me to go to a far and difficult barangay in my parish. Even now I can see in my mind’s eye the daunting mountain climb that greets every traveler to the village and slippery, rocky mountainous pathways I need to negotiate to reach it. I think of some of my companions who had slipped into near deaths. But now I also pause to pray for fresh courage. I remind myself: It’s God’s love that I bring and must make visible, not my fears and hesitations. So please help me, Lord. Then I think of Ate Melanie and the power of her love as a mother. Now, more than ever, I pray for the humility that will help me put myself in the palm of God our Father’s hands, the power of whose Love is visible on Cross of his Son Jesus Christ.

Together with Ate Melanie, I also think of my friend Mel. Forgive me for introducing him rather late. He is a shy painter who loves obscurity but paints such glowing colors of life as anyone can see in his paintings. I once requested him to restore the then time-worn and fading old Stations of the Cross portraits in my former parish church. The results speak for themselves: the mysteries of the sufferings and triumph of Jesus in living color. But it struck me one day how those bright living colors need the lowly canvas to be what it is in order for the artist’s ideas to be visible. That, I said to myself, is the same thing with every Christian and with every Christian missionary.

God is the painter. It is his Love that is beautifully made visible first by Jesus Christ. Our mission, so says Benedict XVI, is to continue making it VISIBLE in the world of our day and age. St. Ignatius of Loyola once encouraged his brothers with the words: “Make yourselves liked by all, become all things to all men in humility and love…” We best do it when we acknowledge the truth that we are the mere canvas, not the painter. We do so when, in faith, we put ourselves in God’s hands through prayer and then allow the power of his Love to propel our efforts to proclaim the Gospel. Our aim is to do all we can, in obedience to the Spirit, so that our fellow human beings may be able to say with St. Therese of Lisieux: “One glance at the holy Gospel, and the life of Jesus becomes a perfume that fills the air I breathe.”
That life has the power of Love written large in the Gospel, enabling anyone, especially the missionary, to climb the steepest mountains.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Pastoral Ministry in the Context of the Empowerment of the Laity


When we prepare for Communion as priests presiding over the Eucharist we first divide the consecrated host into two parts. The Body of Jesus, we explain this act, is broken so that it may be shared. So now, let me divide my reflection into two parts, so that I may better share with you my message. The first part would be on Pastoral Ministry itself. The second part would deal with how we might empower the laity.

Pastoral Ministry

Like it or not, there’s one thing we share with waiters and waitresses in restaurants. We feed people. But the food we serve is for people’s spirits while that by our counterparts in restaurants is for people’s bodies.

There’s another sharp difference. Waiters and waitresses are required to please us with their service. But they are not required to love us. On the other hand, priests are not only required to serve God’s people by feeding his flock with his Word and sacraments. They are also required to do so from a pastor’s love. This is the heart of what we call ‘pastoral ministry’, which essentially is really living out Jesus Christ’s ‘pastoral charity’. That is to say, a priest who is a pastor or shepherd of the Lord’s flock must, by definition, be a lover of God and his people first. A so-called ‘servant-leader” without love is a living contradiction. He is no better than a waiter.

That is why our pastoral ministry is based on our ‘configuration to Christ the head’ (Presbyterorum Ordinis, no. 2). It is Jesus who first loved us with the Father’s love. And the Father is the One who so “loves the world that he gave us his only Son so that those who believe in him may not perish but may have everlasting life” (Jn 3:16). Without this love of the Father, visible in Jesus the Son, our ministry becomes empty, at best technical, at worst mechanical.

Suppose I was the best sculptor in the whole of Leyte and Samar. And you asked me to carve out your whole figure to serve as a statue. Suppose I perfectly carved out your whole bodily figure including the measurements, your face’s warts and all. Still the resulting perfect figure is not your replacement. It’s the same thing with us. Ordination may have configured us into Christ the head. But we do not replace Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd. It’s not in our mission to do this. Our mission is not to be Christ’s substitutes but to be “signs and instruments of his presence and activity” (PCP II, 516). It’s not our love that we bring but the Father’s love visible in Jesus the Good Shepherd.

We need to ask: What does it mean for a ministerial priest to be a ‘sign and instrument’ of Christ’s presence and activity? It is here that Vatican II answers: “It is Christ himself who through their (priest’s) signal service preaches the Word of God, administers the sacraments, incorporates new members into his body and directs and guides his people on their journey to eternal salvation” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, no. 21). Suppose you write a letter by your pen, paint a face by your brush and stand by the sacristy in your cassock. Suppose further that your pen, your brush and your cassock claim to be you. That will draw the biggest laugh. They are just signs and instruments of your presence and activity. Neither can we ministerial priests therefore claim to be Christ or his replacements. We are just instruments of his presence and activity among God’s People and God’s world.

That is why our pastoral ministry must not only be characterized by charity but also by humility. When we say we are configured into Christ the head, we must understand Christ’s headship correctly. It’s not about lording over others. It’s about being a servant, a footwasher. We are leaders. But we lead by being servants. “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45).

Often we are embarrassed by the poverty and insignificance of our country. Add to that too the poverty and smallness of our people, the people that we serve. Add to that even further the poverty and smallness of the way our people see and feel about themselves. But, happily, in the perspective of the Scriptural God, poverty and insignificance characterize his favorite people. Figures such as the shepherd David, the prophets, Samson, Gideon, Ruth and others in the Old Testament as well as Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna and the fishermen apostles, not to say Jesus himself, were poor, insignificant people during their time. But God’s majesty and power completely shone in them. Their humility helped them greatly in their faith as well as in their love and service of the poor to whom they proclaimed God’s Word.

A Jesuit brother advised a newly-ordained priest: “Forget your dignity. Assume your responsibility.” It’s very instructive how in the history of the Church, when we emphasized the priestly ordination as a reception of “sacred powers”, titles and priestly dignity were the most prized commodities. But when, as a result of Vatican II and PCP II, we started looking at the priesthood from the point of view of the Scriptures and Jesus’ own words and deeds, ministry, service and responsibility became the buzz words.

It has taken us a long complicated process to realize a simple interconnected network of truths. One, that our pastoral ministry is a service, a total giving of self to God and to his people. Two, we cannot truly serve without the love of God in us. Three, we cannot truly love without putting on the humility of the small and insignificant, the anawim, Jesus himself being the foremost among them, who are God’s favorites.

Now why do we need the humility of the anawim in our pastoral ministry?

The answer lies in the nature of our ‘ministerial priesthood’. It is so-called ‘ministerial’ because it is basically a service. Because a servant serves his master, the master realizes his identity as master. In the same way, while “the common priesthood of the faithful is exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace—a life of faith, hope and charity, a life according to the Spirit—the ministerial priest is precisely ministerial because he is a servant of the royal priesthood that it may fulfill and become itself, a priestly people called to offer prayers and gifts to God the Father. For this is how he becomes truly configured to Christ the Head” (Lumen Gentium, n.10; PO 2, 6).

How Do We Go About Empowering the Laity?

Before we answer this all-important question, we need to make some clarifications. First, how do we understand ‘empowering the laity’? Does this mean that ministerial priests give the lay faithful any sort or form of power? The Second Plenary Council itself admits that the new-found regularity of the term ‘empowerment’ was an offshoot of our Edsa People Power experience (PCP II 325-326). Millions of Filipinos, by their presence and shared convictions against the Marcos regime’s excesses, drove out the former strongman and installed peacefully a new government in a democratic way that awed the world. Out of ‘People Power’ came the popularity of the term ‘empowerment’ to mean promoting participation from formerly marginalized groups, such as the urban and rural poor etc. In other words, applying ‘people power’ through the word ‘empowerment’ on our laity appears to be related to encouraging their greater participation in the Church’s life and mission.

But let’s make some things clear. We priests do not give any power to our lay faithful. Whatever power they have as children of God comes directly from God himself through the Holy Spirit’s action in the sacrament of Baptism they had received. The Archbishop Emeritus of Palo, Archbishop Pedro R. Dean, once observed, and rightly so, that the term “lay empowerment” could be a “misnomer” because there is no power any human being can give the laity since that power is already theirs by means of their Baptism. In other words, all that we do as their pastors is to recognize and allow the realization of the power given to them to be sons and daughters of the Father (Jn 1:12).

How do we do this as their pastors? Let me cite some of the ways.

1. By our Witnessing

Let me illustrate the ‘empowering’ nature of witnessing. A priest was dismayed to see plenty of plastic wrappers scattered indiscriminately on the white-sand beach at Divinubo Island (still part of Borongan). Without thinking he started picking up the wrappers and putting them into trash cans. At one point, he looked around and was so surprised to see children and young people suddenly doing what he was doing. He reflected that just as doing wrong can be infectious, so is doing right. When the lay faithful see their priests praying, that can generate their own prayerfulness. When priests are seen as not too ‘money-conscious’, that edifies people into doing service that is also less concerned with monetary returns. When priests struggle to be faithful to the Lord in his ministry despite his weaknesses, that is a positive push for parishioners to also strive to be faithful to the Lord in their distinct responsibilities as Christians and as citizens of their country.

2. By a Greater Recognition of the Laity’s Christian Dignity as Catholics

We cannot deny a fact of history, namely, our laity’s being sidelined for a long time. Partly in reaction to the excesses of the Protestant Reformation, in which, for example, anybody could just read and interpret the Scriptures, lay men and women in the Catholic Church were often found passive. Henry Cardinal Newman once remarked humorously that, during his time, lay Catholics could only do three things: “to sit up, to pay up and to shut up”. One of the timely reforms of Vatican II was the emphasis on the equality of all the baptized in dignity and their participation in the life and mission of the Church.

Unfortunately Vatican II is taking a long, long time being received. Many lay Catholics still remain passive and sidelined. One big factor is their priest. Does he truly recognize their identity and dignity, rooted in their Baptism, in ways that go beyond mere words during homilies, talks and chats? Does he encourage them to live by their identity and dignity by actively and systematically forming them through adult catechesis to be Christian witnesses and missionaries? Let’s all ask ourselves these questions and not be contented by ‘no’ for an answer.

3. By Enhancing the Poor’s Sense of their Human and Christian Dignity

We minister to mostly poor people. Even our so-called rich parishes are still populated by the majority who are poor. It is a fact that our poor are also mostly sidelined in church life. Our BECs have wonderfully turned the tide in many places. But a lot more of our poor are not reached by the BEC. For reasons both legitimate and not, there is real hesitation, if not resistance, even among the clergy to go all out with BEC. One reason is the hard work and constant need to follow up on our poor who constitute most BEC clusters. Unlike faith communities that seem to have internally galvanized mostly middle-class lay Catholics into evangelization, mission and proselytizing, the BEC appears to need the steady active role of the clergy to survive and thrive. I submit that one thing we take for granted is the low self-esteem and self-image of our poor. There is no substitute to a good catechesis on the real implications of Baptism to respond to this situation. But catechesis needs the help of priest-encouraged solidarity-building between the poor and better-off parishioners of our communities. Forming faith communities and other mandated religious groups and organizations in the BEC spirituality and tapping them to participate in evangelizing, forming and building BEC communities in which the better-off interact with our poor as brothers and sisters in one big family is a step in the right direction.

4. By Cultivating a More Human and Christ-like Relationship with People

Even unbeknownst to us, our laity looks at us as men of power and privilege. I am struck at how it seems a big thing for people to discover that their priest is “kind” and “considerate”. Priests who are so perceived have the ability to bring people out of their shells. Conversely, priests who are seen as cold and harsh drive even the educated Catholics away from church and church life. A lay parishioner mistreats an ordinary-looking man. To her shock she discovers the man is actually a priest. She apologizes to him but blames him for not wearing a clerical. The priest answers: “Even if I did not wear a clerical, all human beings are entitled to be treated like human beings.” Well-said, Father. But that doesn’t mean we must abandon the clerical. It means, however, that clerical is a sign that we priest must be the first to act human in the way we treat others because we carry the presence of Jesus Christ in our person. Jesus was most human not only because he has shared everything we humans have and are but also (and especially) because he acknowledged the humanity even of the downtrodden, the poor and the outcasts, and treated them as such. It must be very good to be truly human because the Son of God became one and acted like one. St. Irenaeus, in fact, exclaimed that the glory of God is the fully human person. That is what we see in Jesus Christ in which perfect love of God is completely one with perfect love of people. There’s no reason for his priest to be any less.

5. By Recognizing, Appreciating and Maximizing the Laity’s Potentials

Some priests are happy to discover parishioners with various talents and abilities. Other priests feel threatened by them. We must clearly reject the second option as un-Christian and un-priestly. Here’s why: To each human being, especially to each baptized Christian, the Holy Spirit showers gifts and charisms according to God’s wisdom for the sake of building up his kingdom on earth and Christ’s Body. It is precisely for this reason that we must spot, recognize, appreciate, tap and maximize these gifts and charisms for the sake of the Church and the spread of the gospel. In a concrete parish it’s not hard to see this need. We need parishioners who can be lectors, others who can be commentators, still others who can be altar servers, collectors, ushers/usherettes, song leaders, psalmists, prayer leaders, Communion ministers, caregivers, catechists, preachers, etc. That is to say, no one can be so empowering as a priest who, with the help of his parishioners, recognizes the Holy Spirit’s gifts in the potentials and charisms of people and taps them to the maximum for God’s kingdom. I know a priest who observed that any pastor who does not recognize, appreciate and maximize his lay leaders commits a practical heresy. I asked what he meant by ‘practical heresy’. He answered: “It means that, even if you believe correctly that the Holy Spirit enriches each baptized Christian with his gifts and charisms, once that belief is not put into practice, you become a ‘practical heretic’. The reason is that your practice is the exact opposite of your belief.”

6. By Accepting People’s Weaknesses and Moving Forward Despite Them

All human beings, including priests, have both strengths and weaknesses. For most of us life goes smoothly as long as our strengths dominate our weaknesses. But in a pastor’s life weaknesses of parishioners or his own could get more attention for one reason or another. Let’s try to be as concrete as we can. A member of the Parish Pastoral Council has a way of speaking and acting that is annoying. Parishioners keep telling the pastor how his homilies are bookish (another way of saying ‘boring’) and his voice so high-pitched and painful to the ear. A confraternity member is always late for meetings. A group of ladies often backbite other parishioners and the parish priest. A men’s group have a drinking problem, sometimes dragging the parish priest into their sessions. The list could go on. We must distinguish between weaknesses that are destructive of people who have them and the people around them, and weaknesses that are simply distracting or annoying. For the first we must do our best to give people who have them the appropriate help. For the second we must simply remember and observe the word of our elders regarding people who have them: “Pasayloon”, that is, deserving our forgiveness. St. Augustine once said that of all the alms we can give, “none is greater than that by which we forgive from our heart…”

7. By Giving Second Chances

Sometimes life surprises us with how doing a simple thing we take for granted in our ministry could have lasting consequences. For example, a priest had a problem with his temper. But he learned to hold it and cultivate patience through an experience with an altar server who habitually makes mistakes at the altar. Every time he is tempted to flare up over another mistake, he recalls how the boy’s elder brother joined the born-again group ‘U-Turn for Christ’ because his own father tried to forcefully make him stop coming home late. The priest confessed that perhaps one reason why the younger brother has remained Catholic is the string of ‘second chances’ he extends to him when he overlooks the boy’s mistakes. Of course, these second chances have only been effective because mistakes were eventually corrected in a way the priest judges to be consistent with the gospel. The priest admits he was helped by Jesus’ own injunction in Matthew’s gospel about fraternal correction—to do it step by step: first privately, then with witnesses, then with the whole church (Mt 18:15-20). The priest thought that if he flared up, that would be known by the whole Church and, in effect, reverse the gospel process. Giving second chances is wise.

8. By Consulting the Laity in Matters Affecting Them and Their Parish Community

Imagine coming to a presbyteral assembly and hearing the archbishop make this announcement: “Brothers, for purposes of transparency and efficiency in our financial system, I have decided to send auditors from COA to all our parishes effective next week…” I think I will not be exaggerating if I say that there will be, first, shock among the clergy, then anxious clarifications, then an uproar if not an openly livid opposition (but not a ‘hostage crisis’, I can be sure of that, because there will be no financially viable hostages available). The biggest and strongest reason behind the opposition is this: There were no consultations. We priests are so used to being consulted that we do not hesitate in pointing out how unfair and unjust it is when there is no consultation in matters affecting us as priests and pastors. On the other hand, we need to ask if we make consultations ourselves with the people we serve in matters affecting them and their communities. If we do, we show concretely our recognition of their dignity as members of the New People of God, and the rights and duties that come with it.

9. By Encouraging the Laity’s Participation According to Their Charism and Field of Competence

Filipino priests who have an experience ministering in some parts of the United States often tell a common story. During weekdays they do almost everything in church. They open the doors, sometimes do some cleaning and physical arrangement of the place, prepare bread, wine and other Mass paraphernalia, set up their own vestments, become the lector especially when Mass-goers are mostly elderly and also become their own altar server as well. (Thank God they don’t have to respond to their own declaration, “The Lord be with you”, with “And also with me”.). What comes out clearly here is how comical church life is when there is little or no participation. The reason why the Holy Spirit has gifted all the faithful, lay and clerical, with diverse gifts and charisms, is precisely that the Lord wants all the baptized involved in the building up of his kingdom on earth. This is implied in Jesus’ command in the gospels to all his disciples to preach the Good News to all nations or to all creation. However, involvement is only one aspect of participation. The other aspect is that this is done according to one’s charism and field of competence. It is not right, for instance, for a lector to be assigned choir master (sometimes this happens) or for a lawyer parishioner to be assigned PPC auditor (sometimes it also happens) or, again, for a novena prayer leader to be Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. A number of priests have a special group of people close to him, aside from the PPC, that advises him in many matters in the parish. The question a priest must always honestly answer is: Are these people truly competent to advise me in such and such a matter? Nothing is more empowering than to allow people to do their part in the whole tapestry of church life and mission but according to their charisms, abilities and field of competence.

10. By Applying Honest but Compassionate Evaluation of the Laity’s Performance

One natural mechanism in human life is that when we do good or right, we get praised and when we do wrong or fail, we get criticized or censured. We call this ‘feedback’. A praise is a ‘positive feedback’; a censure or a disapproving criticism is a ‘negative feedback’. We all need a feedback after we perform a task or a responsibility, especially because a feedback can help us achieve a goal or objective better. Even Jesus asked for a feedback when he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Mt 16:13). It is clear that he wanted to know if people had a correct idea of who he is and what his purpose/mission is from his preaching and works. When Peter gave him the correct answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16), Jesus responded with a positive feedback, saying, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven” (Mt 16:17). In a word, Jesus is saying, “You got it right, Simon. My Father in heaven has given you the grace of insight!”
What has this got to do with empowering the laity?

Plenty. Our laity, many times after doing their tasks, no matter how simple, rarely get a feedback unless it is a negative one when he/she fails, especially from their parish priests. We take for granted how empowering an honest feedback can be. Think of how empowered you become when the bishop praises a well-done program or project in your parish. If it works for us priests, it certainly will work with our laity as well. But there is a no-no here. Let us not give dishonest feedback just to make our lay brethren feel good about themselves. A lie will eventually show itself and only add to the problem.

Priests do better to be honest in giving feedbacks to their lay parishioners regarding mistakes committed. But one could do so with compassion by focusing not on the person but on the erroneous act. Instead of saying, “You are a failure as a lector”, it is much more helpful and compassionate to privately tell the person in question, “You showed good effort but i noticed there were words that you mispronounced, like ‘booth’, ‘fishes’ etc. Could you practice with someone before the actual reading and also lower down your voice tone? The pitch was high I found it a bit painful to the ear, listening to you.” Feedbacks such as these are not condemning nor judgmental. They rather focus on things that can be corrected. Any person will come out of it empowered to improve in future performances of his/her task.

What have we been saying here? A simple message to the clergy: EMPOWER THE LAITY, EMPOWER YOURSELVES.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Beauty, anyone?

IT IS said that there are only two kinds of men: men who admire those who are beautiful and men who think they are beautiful. I’m astounded at how more and more obsessed our world has become with beauty. Add to that how we take for granted that obsession. I’m equally amazed at how more and more sophisticated people have become in making themselves look good or better. Again, add to that how that preoccupation could be regarded a thing so natural it’s taken in the same league as breathing, eating or drinking, or a goal so fundamental it’s regarded by so many as a sine-qua-non of the pursuit of happiness. Isn’t it amazing how some people think not being beautiful means not being happy? In fact, I’m amazed that I’m amazed.

But let me drop these rambling thoughts and get down to the business of reflecting.

First, it’s at least clear to me that the ancient thinkers have different perspectives on beauty. Socrates once said that beauty is “a short-lived tyranny”, possibly because beauty, say in a woman, can make her the cause of a variety of afflictions in people, particularly in those under her spell, from having to carry its possessor’s luggage to committing graft or even murder on that person’s order or wish, if actual events were to be our gauge. But, perhaps fortunately, physical beauty is characteristically ephemeral and yet, let’s face it, the fact that beauty fades in time, even if somewhat slowly in a few, is the agony of people whose number is beyond counting. As Mėrė once declared: “Beauty is the first present nature gives…and the first it takes away”, evidently an extension of Plato’s earlier opinion that “beauty is a privilege of nature”. In a word, though it does not come to a person by way of merit, its possessor gains an incomparable edge in the society of all-too-flawed humans such as ours. Of course, we say in no way is beauty on the same footing as achievement. A man or woman who has a successful career—for instance, as a lawyer, doctor, accountant, artist or writer—by logic has more reason to feel proud than a man or woman who simply possesses beauty or a handsome appearance. Still, in real life, we all know how physical beauty can so enthrall or even possess people that it becomes a veritable source of power and influence for its owner. The ‘artistas’ and people in showbiz are a perfect example. People with beautiful faces, handsome appearances and crisp well-chiseled bodies could, to repeat Socrates, become tyrants, if often unintentionally, simply because they command people’s attention and adulation, despite sometimes not having the talent or competence in any given endeavor they get themselves into. All the more reason we are not surprised when Aristotle, even in ancient Greece, already said that “beauty is better than all the letters of recommendation in the world”.

On the other hand, we realize, sooner than later, that physical beauty alone, though admittedly a form of power over others, is only “skin-deep”. Genuine beauty, our finer instincts tell us, has deeper roots.

In fact, lesser known thinkers already lead us to these deeper roots. For example, Quarles said that “the fountain of beauty is the heart”. Bacon, as if in response, asserted: “The best part of beauty is that which no picture can express”. But I am most taken by the words of Bovee to the effect that “when a graceful figure is the habitation of a virtuous soul—when the beauty of a face speaks out the modesty and humility of the mind, it raises our thoughts to the great Creator…”

All these confirm the insight that genuine beauty is within and involves the heart and one’s inner attitudes and conduct, though admittedly external physical beauty helps. But the really profound observation is that beauty takes us to God himself. Ironically Pinoys find it funny when, to the question of “Is she beautiful (Maganda ba sya?)”, they hear the answer, “She’s kind (Mabait sya)” in an apparently polite way of saying, “No, she’s not beautiful” and a deft way of not having to say the ‘U’ word (if you, dear reader, want to know what that is, please don’t ask me). In the process we miss the deeper insight that ‘kindness’ is at the heart of true ‘beauty’, bearing in mind Pope John Paul II’s teaching that the “heart of God is compassion.”

This is where Mama Mary comes in. When St. Juan Diego saw the Blessed Virgin Mary whom we call now Our Lady of Guadalupe he saw, in his words, “a lovely lady dressed in Aztec dress”. We wonder how Mama Mary’s beauty could be so unfading, what with two thousand years having passed. But from the angel’s words we clearly hear of God’s action in her and, no wonder, it is a touch of beauty. Bovee’s words quoted above are a reminder of a universal sense among human beings that when physical beauty is coupled with virtue, such as modesty and humility, it becomes a powerful sacrament of God. In his words, “it raises our thoughts to the great Creator”.

When the archangel Gabriel declares to Mama Mary God’s plan of making her the Mother of his Son, he calls her kecharitomene. Earlier translated as “full of grace”, later scholars render it (the) “favored one”. ‘Grace’ indicates not only Mary’s beauty in its fullness, both physical and spiritual, but especially its character as a gift from God, which is also clear in the concept of ‘favor’ being showered on Mary, a name which in Hebrew means “excellence”. Although the physical beauty of Mama Mary is often not stressed in her apparitions, it’s also just as factual, and this we gather from visionaries of her in Lourdes, Fatima, Lasalette etc. But it’s also true that in the gospels, attention to the physical beauty of Mama Mary is beside the point. Rather what we read and hear about is the beauty of her heart, her total innocence when she asks the archangel Gabriel how she is going to be a mother in the absence of a man’s intervention (a remark that some early Fathers of the Church interpreted to mean Mary’s intention not to get married), her indomitable hope and courage at the foot of the cross, her deep humility in regarding herself as merely the “handmaid of the Lord” but, most of all, her faith and obedience apparent in her surrender to God’s will, i.e., “Let it be done to me according to your word”.

This is what makes Mama Mary truly beautiful. By her humility and obedience Mama Mary easily makes herself the perfect dwelling place of God. And indeed she is the ‘new ark of the covenant’ because in her God the Son dwelt even as the angel declared, “The Lord is with you”. Now, when someone is filled with God, she must be the most beautiful creature in the whole world for, as St. Augustine once said, God is “Beauty ever ancient, ever new”.

Now here’s the best part: This is a beauty everybody, male or female, can possess. That is, if, with God’s grace, we could also imitate the virtues that make Mama Mary the quintessence of true beauty.

Then the matter of distinguishing those who admire the beautiful and those who are beautiful wouldn’t matter anymore.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Meet Virgilio, child laborer

TRUTH is stranger than fiction, so I heard. Take Virgilio’s case, for example. He is from Brgy Cabalagnan (literally, a place with vines), one of those villages in my parish that can be so easy to forget because they are so hard to get to. Looking back, I feel now that my meeting him was a cross between accident and destiny. Cabalagnan is more than an hour walk from Brgy Camada which is a ten-to-fifteen-minute ride from Brgy Lalawigan, the center of my parish. At that point I had lost track of the exact number of kilometers to measure the distances. I had just celebrated the Eucharist and received simple but generous “thank you” gifts of root crops, veggies and bananas from the villagers for the efforts my companions and I made to reach them.

Actually when I saw them with broad daylight smiles bringing said gifts during the Offertory, I was more worried than glad. You guessed right. It meant we had to carry added burdens aside from our bags on our way back. You would react the same way, too, if you were in my boots (I was wearing a pair). Yes, I decided to use a pair of boots because the last time I was in Brgy Cabalagnan, some zigzagging, up-and-down and just plain pathways were under water or muddy. I remember wishing I had boots on instead of the rubber shoes I was wearing then. This time I saw that having boots was a big mistake. The road surfaces were dry, rough and tough because of El Niño. My feet were swollen from walking because I refused to put on socks out of some misplaced pride in my ability to endure the boots with bare feet. I had to eat my pride for breakfast when I went asking to buy a pair of socks from a parishioner in the village. Thankfully, I found what I needed.

But let me go back to my story. The Brgy Chairman sought and easily found someone who would bring the rather onerous offertory gifts. But I gasped when I saw a rather diminutive boy carrying some native backpack loaded with our root crops, veggies and bananas bulging on his back. I felt I couldn’t take what I was seeing.

“What’s your name?” I asked. “Virgilio po.” “How old are you?” “Ten po.” “Do you go to school? What grade?” “Yes po. Grade three po.” So that’s why he speaks partly in Pilipino, I thought. School can make people speak Pilipino. But that’s no guarantee they’ll act like they are, I said to myself. “I don’t think I’ll let you carry all that load,” I said, trying to be manfully righteous. “Even I won’t dare to do that nor ask you to, not only because my own bag is heavy enough but also because you are a child…” “Padre, it’s ok. I can carry as much as 30 kilos, as a matter of fact…” “What?” I exclaimed. “You carry 30 kilos of what?” “Copra po. There are no vehicles that can come here. Our roads can be very difficult and dangerous. So they hire us sometimes.” “And how much do they give you for 30 kilos of copra?” “Depends, Padre. Some copra dealers just give twenty pesos, others are even more miserly because they give less.”

I was furious at being unable to dissuade Virgilio. Yet, frankly, I couldn’t, for all the manly pride I had in my physical abilities, take the load off his back. I had to admit I wouldn’t be able to walk and carry that load at the same time. And I couldn’t ask him to go back to the village either, as he behaved like the bulging basket on his back was just a piece of salukara (our local rice pancake) compared to 30 kilos of copra. But I felt terribly sorry for him and the reasons why his parents wouldn’t hesitate to allow him to do child labor.

In fact, parents in Brgy Cabalagnan and in its environs assume not only the rightness of this awful practice but also demand child labor from kids like Virgilio as though it were among their parental rights. There certainly are anti-child-labor laws in the Philippines. But who would enforce them in this law-and-order-forsaken place? Who would not be compelled to ask little children to do heavy adult labor when there are no farm-to-market roads worth the name to Brgy Cabalagnan and not even a shadow of them to Brgys Banuyo, Canyupay, Hebacong, Benowangan, Baras, Pinanag-an and Bagong Baryo?

In other words, child labor in our benighted land is a direct product of the virtually ‘invisible’ services one expects from a working government. You might say, “Why doesn’t he simply admit it indicates bad governance?” One could say, “What governance? There’s nothing you can call that here.” Maybe I’d say “minimal governance” after a season of maximum political propaganda (the recent elections). Different shells, you might retort, same eggs. Believe me poverty can rob you of the ability to distinguish things.

Virgilio and I had a long chat about school. “How is school?” “Ok, Padre. Grades One, Two and Three are all in one classroom. Masaya pero maingay (fun but noisy).” I tried to give him my cap. “Take my cap, so it won’t be too hot while you walk with that load.” It was a very humid El Niño day. I thought it was the least I could do to ease his burden. He refused. “Salamat na lang po, Padre (No, thank you, Father). Sa ‘yo na lang po (Please have it for yourself).” I sensed that he thought I needed it more than he did. I was put to shame by his deliberate toughness.

The day’s mood was sunny but, as I hiked with Virgilio, I remembered the song about laughing on the outside, crying on the inside. That’s how I felt for myself, for my homeland, for Virgilio and children like him, for my parish, for Borongan my hometown of which these villages are a part, for my province Eastern Samar, for my country. I asked myself, “Until when do we refuse to learn and finally stop going round and round in circles reaping the fruits of a sick political culture that makes money decide elections, bringing leaders that hardly lead, servants that barely serve?”

As we reached Brgy Camada I thanked Virgilio and gave him something more than the usual fee for 30 kilos of copra. I saw his eyes flash gratefully. But I knew it was still a pittance for all his pain. But I was not prepared for what I would see next.

I saw a smaller boy, around eight years of age, by the waiting shed, sweat all over his body and a huge ‘sarasad’ basket full of veggies, root crops and house items on his back, which he ever so slowly laid down. On the other side of the road his mother was barking commands to his younger brother, around seven years old. He too had an identical huge ‘sarasad’ basket on his back that seemed to dwarf him. Both were about to get their rest, still breathing hard and perspiring profusely after a long hike. It seemed to me that they were Virgilios carrying the burdens of our sins…

As I watched them with bated breath I soon found myself wrestling with another question: Will a smiling tomorrow ever overtake these boys?

The answer depends on whether you and I will do something about it.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Elections and the Filipino

I’ve always ached for words to describe the way we Filipinos regard elections. The closest is, you guessed right, ‘circus’. For most other people elections are just one of those ho-hum exercises of freedom. For us elections are big time show, party and politics in one. I had two chances of watching the U.S. presidential elections: in 1992 and in 2009. Except for their heightened interest in the debates most Americans simply tolerated the exercises the way a patient tolerates a doctor’s knife in the O.R. The young almost always avoided politics like the plague. A recent exception was during the candidacy of then Senator Barak Obama to the highest office of the U.S. when he inspired many people by what Colin Powell called his “transformational figure” looming large in the horizon, coupled with his soaring rhetorical skills.

For us Filipinos elections offer, for now, little such promise. That doesn’t dampen our spirits though. Elections often seem the democratic marijuana that we inhale with abandon. But nothing reveals our national psyche better.

Elections uncover us as a festive people. Colors greet you everywhere you go in the archipelago, and I’m not just talking about campaign posters, streamers or ads. I’m talking about the kind of persons we become when we run for office or express support for our candidates. The basic color of our skin is not brown. It’s celebration. No matter how poor we are, how bad our economy or how terrible the way we are governed, we will always find a reason to celebrate. In our collective mindset elections are one of those reasons. For one, elections offer an open door even to the poor. And shouldn’t that be cause for celebration? I’ve always thought President Quezon shouldn’t have uttered those words about his preference of a Philippines “run like hell by Filipinos” to one “run like heaven” by our favorite foreigners (who else?) because that seemingly has become our lot from Day One Filipinos started running their own country. But ask any Juan or Juana de la Cruz on the streets. And he/she will tell you, “Be that as it may, Sir/Ma’am, we have this one chance to get back at our tormentors, incumbent or future. Elections are our singular weapon to a new tomorrow or to forget today!” And so let the music go blaring, let the politicians go baring their slogans and platforms, let celebrities mix with and entertain the hoi polloi, let candidates believe they are undiscovered singers, dancers, comedians/comediennes. We the people don’t mind. We know the truth anyway. I wonder if our politicians ever realize how all their efforts rarely earn them any serious attention, not to say votes. On the other hand, I think they do and still go on with the show because everybody just wants to celebrate nothing in particular except life that, thank God, is still under some semblance of democracy.

Alas, elections also unwraps the violent streak in us. The Maguindanao Massacre is, to date, its worst and most egregious expression. But before that there were other lesser known or remembered killings and political assassinations. No, it’s not only that some Filipinos and their families believe they have power in their genes. Power is also a tool in keeping a family’s grip on dominance in a turf, its survival or blossoming; violence is a tool of power, yes, violence in arms as well as in words. That explains the mud-slinging and character assassinations that, though also true in other countries, are uniquely Filipino during elections. Verbal and armed violence is a way of advancing the cause of the tribe, defending its turf and honor or eliminating a threat. The sooner we acknowledge the violent streak in us, which finds expression in black propaganda and in actual bloodletting, the better for us in our crusade to find ways of taming it by an informed conscience, more effective laws and internal as well as external restraint. We are no more violent than other races and it’s no use making comparisons. We can only compare ourselves with the best our own history offers. Violence may be a streak in our national character but it doesn’t define us. Wasn’t there an EDSA Revolution of 1986, unique and unrepeatable but also ongoing even as I write, that once served notice to all the world how change can also happen without or with very little violence, with millions of Filipinos at its helm? Wasn’t that our own message in a bottle to ourselves that, yes, we can also go beyond violence to effect change? And, as Catholics (with no prejudice to those who aren’t), don’t we feel justly proud to observe how our faith had something to do with our national tryst with non-violent change?

Alas, elections have also put in display our circuitous relations with discipline. The late president, Ferdinand Marcos, often regarded a dictator, had an uncanny insight into our situation when, in trying to promote his New Society, he coined the motto: “Sa ikauunlad ng bayan, disiplina ang kailangan (For the country to progress, discipline is necessary)”. I couldn’t agree more. But the use of external force and Martial Law to instill what is necessarily an internal reality only created more evil than the woeful lack of discipline in our character. Martial Law triggered abuse of power from large sections of the military, engineered assassinations and deaths of perceived enemies of the powers-that-be, normalized human rights violations in the name of national security and nearly consigned us to the dust bin of history. Still Filipinos have scarcely developed any kinship with Lady Discipline. This is particularly clear during elections. You see it in the way our politicians and their supporters skirt elections laws prohibiting display of political ads on trees, electric posts and such other non-designated places (in the province it seems to me there are no non-designated places). But how do we solve a problem like undisciplined Filipinos? Maybe a really professional military and more police presence can help. Maybe better law enforcement can help. Maybe the elimination of criminal impunity can help. But nothing will truly help until Filipinos themselves welcome Lady Discipline into their daily lives not as an imposed companion but as necessary partner, friend and relative in the family clan called development.

Alas, elections have uncovered a collective lust in many of us for money or power. We cheer our democratic space, but have we not made elections a way of making as much as of losing money? The billions of pesos now being spent boggle the imagination. TV networks, advertising and printing companies are only some of the gainers. There are even candidates who run with very little chance of winning and suddenly withdraw from the race at the homestretch. They invite talks, such as: “Oh, he’s got his money already. That’s why he’s calling it quits.” On the other hand, I have personally met some politicians who have lost unimagined amounts of property and hard-earned cash to the bottomless pit of election campaign drudgery to which they succumb in order to gain even a modicum of power. I’ve been amazed no end at how the quest for power has often impoverished otherwise well-off citizens and enriched once poor ones. The medieval search for the Holy Grail sometimes even pales in comparison to the Filipino frenzy to obtain power at whatever cost financially or otherwise. Why? Not in order to serve but because for some it’s the surest road to more money and money is the surest road to more power. And our poor? Oh, they know all this by instinct. In my hometown and I suspect in others too, they have a day or two of spending spree because of elections, never mind a rainy day tomorrow.

Indeed, rainy tomorrows will always be our lot unless we use elections to elect the leaders we need, not the leaders who need to be elected.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Is the Filipino self-image in perpetual search of poise?

Just when we thought Filipino bashing is a thing of the past an Italian-American comedian recently rouses us from stupor by his unkind remarks on Manny Pacquiao and our ‘supposed’ sex tours as the only things going for this country and for the race that produced Rizal. Of course, he apologizes the day after, mainly because of an avalanche of animated (at best) or irate (at worst) responses from Pinoys all over the world. Quite possibly the comedian just wanted a little attention for himself, which he clearly achieved from an unspecified number of members of the aggrieved party (us), but my sense is that he also expresses a view by certain foreigners of Filipinos and the Philippines which they can’t quite put into words in polite conversations. I remember an American friend, one of a few, who made bold to ask me: “Father, why are things in your country such a mess most of the time?” I suddenly had a barrage of images in my head showing why he had such a dim view of us: typhoons, the Ondoy flooding, the El Niño drought, the endless political scams, file videos of Smokey Mountain, high corruption indexes, negative confrontational politics, the Maguindanao massacre, polluted air, seas, rivers and garbage everywhere… I said: “For some of it, nature is to blame. For most of it, we are to blame. But, give us the credit, at least we’re searching for a way out.” Until when the search ends I don’t have any idea. Nor most Pinoys, I gather.

Sadly, the dim view I speak of is what many of us Filipinos ourselves adhere to but would, nonetheless, not tolerate foreigners publicly airing such an outrage. Now, I’m not saying that many Pinoys actually believe that only Manny Pacquiao and our ‘supposed’ sex tours define who we are. I’m saying, however, that many of us have very low image of ourselves such that when sensational champion athletes, like the Pacman, or artists, like Charice, do us proud with their gifts, or when our villains put us to shame with sex tours, high corruption and other abominations, we treat them with habitually screaming headlines to the effect that we drown out attention to other things that express the better side of who we are. And why we hardly see how, by and large, foreigners only take their cue from us, frankly, escapes me.

But do we believe in our better side? Is there such a thing? we ask. To my mind, the better side of who we are is also real and beyond reasonable (or unreasonable) doubt. I know you would say you would grant that we as a people are capable of so many good things despite our so many not-so-good circumstances… Pardon me, but I’m not speaking in the abstract. This is very well manifest in doctors or nurses we meet who prefer to stay in the country despite their low pay and less-than-ideal working conditions; teachers who teach children in far-flung barangays despite the untold sacrifices it takes (I habitually witness three teachers who once a week literally claw their way through slippery rocks and jungle paths to reach children they teach); government workers who stay honest despite the culture of corruption breathing on them; political candidates who advocate non-popular but correct (that is, even from the moral perspective) viewpoints and standpoints despite survey results; voters who reject even the very idea of getting money for their votes despite having to forego sometimes generous amounts of money; journalists who tell the truth behind the facts despite their own biases or political leanings; students who live up to the idealism of their youth despite gaining in age and experiencing a corrupt system; politicians who avoid gutter politics and choose instead to address the real problems of their constituents and of the nation despite losing opportunities to put down rivals; poor farmers and fishermen who work hard, not allowing their family’s future to fall into the hands of fate or unscrupulous politicians, despite the latter’s heavy influence in their own families, neighborhoods and the society at large.

Behind these words are real people. These real people should be our sources of insight into who we really are.

We do not owe our dignity to our athletes, artists, politicians, economists or to our economic-socio-political systems and conditions, however much good or evil we discern in them. Nor do we owe it to foreigners, comedians or non-comedians, journalists or plain ordinary folks with or without objective outlooks. Neither do we owe it to our own race and nation, whatever native praiseworthy or unworthy traits we might have. We owe our dignity only to God; and the dignity he has gifted us with surpasses all our weaknesses. It is a dignity that deserved the life of his very own Son when we lost it and when only God could buy it back through God’s own self-gift. And buy it back he did; in a larger sense (as saints and theologians remind us), God raised our dignity higher that it was. Now we are not just images and likenesses; we are sons and daughters in the Son. In a War Memorial I once visited with friends I saw in one section the words written in bold letters: “Freedom is not free.” The same thing can be said of the restoration and exaltation of our dignity. We were not bought back without a struggle nor simply by the blood of our heroes then and now. We were bought back by the blood of the only Son.

The real question is: How have we Filipinos been treating our real dignity? To put it differently: Do we allow the questions put to us by the priest on Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday to direct our real, daily on-going self-evaluations? Or have they just become components of a tired and empty ritual act? Consider these: “Do you reject sin, so as to live in the freedom of God’s children?” “Do you reject the glamour of evil, and refuse to be mastered by sin?” “Do you reject Satan, father of sin and prince of darkness?” “Do you believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth?…Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord?…Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?” After rejecting Satan and all evil, we are asked to believe. That is, we must also ‘be’ and ‘live’ who we are.

In other words, how we truly deal with Easter’s questions in our daily grind determines whether or not we will finally achieve poise in our search for the self-image that finally matches our dignity.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Silence, Listening, Action

I once had a dream. I found myself having a conversation with Donald Trump the multi-billionaire (who someone I know said “is just outrageously wealthy”), the one with the famous quip: “You’re fired!” I heard myself saying, “Mr. Trump, you have so much wealth. Perhaps you could use some of that not only to build casinos, towers and golf courses but also to put up really great shelters for the homeless and big feeding centers for the hungry around the world.” With eyebrows meeting and eyes squinting he said to me, “Excuse me? What did you say, er-Sir?” I repeated my words. But he shouted, “I’m sorry. I really can’t hear you. It’s so noisy where I am.” With a sigh I said, “In that case, Mr. Trump--” He almost screamed, “In that case what?” I said, “In that case, Mr. Trump, you’re fired!” End of the dream.

I couldn’t believe I fired Mr. Trump in a dream (in reality he can be anything but). I rewound that conversation in my mind. I wondered why he said he couldn’t hear me in the noise where he was. Then it occurred to me that our attachment to possessions can dispossess us first of silence and the ability to listen to others and, especially, to God. By possessions I mean not simply hard cash or money in the bank, jewelry, real estate, cars etc. My ideas, my perspectives, my plans, my desires are also my possessions. And they can create as much (if not greater) noise in me as my material possessions can cloud my mind. As loud music shatters a conversation, lack of silence and listening keeps us from the right action.


The silence that a disciple of Jesus Christ needs is not only external silence but especially inner silence. Jesus himself models this silence for us. “Though he was in the form of God,” says St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians, “he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather he emptied himself and took the form of a slave coming in human likeness; and found in human appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8). Jesus dispossessed himself of his divine glory (inner silence) before he was even born in a manger (external silence). We are told by the gospels that Jesus could spend nights in prayer (cf. Lk 6:13) which required a huge amount of external silence. But that was because, as he says in Jn, “my food is to do the will of him who sent me” (Jn 4:34) which means he had an equally enormous amount of inner silence. From the start he let go of his own plans, perspectives, desires and focused on that of the Father. Because of this inner silence Jesus was able to go through the external humiliation and suffering of the cross. His resurrection is the Father’s proof that both the inner and external silence of Jesus has truly allowed the God of Life to fully reveal himself. This isn’t unlike the inner and external silence of the death of winter giving way to the explosion of life in spring and summer. Indeed April showers bring in May flowers.


After Jesus there is Mary. For me our Lady is like the moon to Jesus who is like the sun. The moon’s light reflects that of the sun. So does Mary reflect Jesus. This is so true especially in the matter of Mary’s silence. The silence of Mary is first of all inner because from the start she made a decision: “I am the maidservant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38), as she said surrendering herself to the Lord’s plan announced to her by the Archangel Gabriel. Because of that inner silence should we wonder why in the pages of the gospel we seldom hear Mary utter a word? In fact, in the whole New Testament it’s only in the first two chapters of St. Lk and the second chapter of St. Jn that Mary speaks. In Mary inner silence flows right into external silence. Even at the foot of the cross, grieving, Mary stands silent. This reminds me of a woman who said, “I love my mom not only for what she has taught me but especially for the moments in which she simply kept quiet.” Chiara Lubich, the founder of the Focolare Movement has, to my mind, the best way of putting it: “Mary is the silence through which the Word of God speaks”. If the drama of salvation were to be staged Mary would be the backdrop through which the Star breaks into light. By her silence she is able to receive Jesus in her womb as well as in her heart and mind. She pondered the Word in silence, treasuring that Word in her heart. Then she translated what she heard by her obedience. “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:28) is really Jesus’ tribute to Mary. No wonder she is the foremost disciple of the Lord. She did not stop at receiving Jesus the Word. She also enabled the Word to be brought to fulfillment and was first to share it with others; thus, in the language of PCP II, Mary, “the first to be evangelized”, was also “the first evangelizer”.
After Jesus and Mary could there be you and me?

Monday, February 15, 2010

A more meaningful Lent

I USED to know a priest who weighed more than two hundred pounds. We were seated at table when the conversation turned to the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?” It was his turn to give his answer and he looked at us gravely as though the issue was a matter of life and death. Then he said: “Physical exercise.” I always have this suspicion that Lent is, for most of us Catholics, a break from our excesses during Christmas, New Year, Sto. Niño and other festivities that go before or come after it, principally motivated (or shall I say ‘dampened’) by the cultivated consciousness of the Lord’s suffering and death on the cross we would be meditating on and which, being more or less inspired by tons of guilt-feelings over our immoderations, leads us to embracing “acts of penance”, namely, the Stations of the Cross, fasting and abstinence, somber prayerfulness, charity (if that’s not too distracting of us going through the preceding motions). Of course, there’s basically nothing abnormal about that. It should pain us though that despite all the catechesis we have received and continue to give on the essential link of Lent to the renewal of our baptismal promises, we still think of Lent as a time of ‘giving up’ instead of a ‘taking up’.

It’s not that I disagree with the ‘giving up’ part. It’s just that I think we often forget the ‘taking up’ component that completes it.

We give up some food or drink (by fasting and abstinence) in order to take up our responsibility to the hungry and the disadvantaged among us. There’s a great ascetical value to our saying no to our appetites but that value becomes eternal when it becomes an avenue to love and charity. In this sense fasting and abstinence is not confined to food and beverage but, in fact, can include anything we can convert into something that expresses love for God and neighbor. When I refrain from cursing during traffic jams or from hurling invectives at politicians I intensely disagree with or from abusing my authority as a priest by imposing especially on the poor high fees for my ‘services’ (a word that, in effect, becomes a ‘misnomer’), I am also doing fasting and abstinence as much as when I refrain from food or meat. The point is that when I deny something I really would like for myself, it’s clearly an admirable act. But when I do that so I would be able to give something good as an expression of charity to another person who needs it probably more than I (such as food, clothing, respect for one’s dignity, support etc.), a merely admirable act becomes a Christian act. In the Philippines (particularly in the rural poor where this author ministers) meat is mostly food identified with the rich or middle class, the poor being only able to indulge it in certain times and circumstances, such as during fiestas or major celebrations. I remember a priest explaining how fasting can mean eating only once in a day to a barangay community when a gaunt-looking man remarked, “In that case I’ve been fasting all my life, Padre…” If our fasting does not help raise our hungry and disadvantaged to the level their dignity deserves, then our fasting could become an empty show. In a word, we give up food and drink in order ultimately to take up our responsibility to struggle for real justice as a way to real peace in our archipelago.

There are other things I suggest we give up during Lent as much as afterwards.

We must give up merely relying on human sources of strength in order to connect to our real Source. This is the whole point to the time we must spend in prayer and silence during and beyond Lent. Jesus, the gospels tell us, spent whole “nights” in prayer, being connected with the Father. At most, we spend fifteen to thirty minutes of the same. And we complain whenever there are efforts to prolong the time of prayer and silence in the church or in our gatherings. Isn’t it vulgar that we can spend hours and hours in meetings, deliberations and conversations among ourselves, in discussing programs and policies, in dissecting the news and politicians’ idiosyncrasies, in watching television and a limitless variety of film, and yet have very little time with the One who Matters Most who also makes things really matter—namely, the God of our salvation? If the problems of the country and the Church in the country are so grave—and there’s no disputing that, whatever sides we take in the political or social arena—then why are we not spending as much time getting in touch with the one who has the greatest power to help us?

We must give up cynicism and indifference in order to take up our responsibility to raise our country from the pit of hopelessness. The cynicism and indifference in the masses of Filipinos could be palpable in the general lack of approval we give to our leaders and our lack on faith in our democratic institutions, however deserved. But it doesn’t take genius to realize how after giving in to cynicism and indifference we are still where we are as a nation. Real penance means that we cast away these two incentives to inaction and non-involvement.

We must give up listening mainly to politicians, economists and technocrats in order to take up our responsibility to listen to the real voices of the poor. If you listen to the politicians (the incumbent ones especially) in my province you would think we are on the brink of prosperity. The truth is, we are somewhat in between being on the brink of pity or popular rage because of the crass and unacceptable gap between what we hear (political propaganda) and what we see (perpetually bad roads, unemployment, unproductive lands, unexplained loss of public revenues, unexplained wealth of people in power etc.). The effort to listen to the real voices of the poor has been a struggle even for us in the Church. But we must begin and, where we have begun, we must not close our ears even when the truth is not pleasant to hear. The reason is simple. Only with our poor, in their massive number, can we expect to truly to co-discern where the Spirit is really leading us in our feeble efforts to finally arrive at a place called “Freedom of the Children of God”.

Monday, February 1, 2010


“It was the best retreat I’ve ever made!” (I wonder how old the priest who made this comment was). “I have never made a retreat like this!” So said some priest participants (if I may repeat Cardinal Rosales’ quotes during his homily in the congress’ last Mass) regarding the Second National Congress of the Clergy of the Philippines held last January 25-29, 2010. I felt bad I missed the first national congress because I truly cherish the second. And so do most other participants. I was outside the country then and on a sabbatical cum research mission when the first took place. From majority of the comments it seemed to me that the second one was better received and appreciated than the first. Priests have a penchant to speak their minds freely in small groups and conversations (they’re like other humans after all) and that was where, it appeared to me, the direction their remarks mostly took. Still, some things on the minus side need not be sneezed at.

In sum, the experience, I think, was a mix. To the many it was a spiritual-social event; at the same time, it was also R & R, albeit on the wings of retreat.

I know that needs some explaining. Let me put it this way. I had taught Christology at St. John the Evangelist School of Theology in Palo, Leyte for years and I remember reminding my students how the Council of Chalcedon was pivotal in our greater understanding of who Jesus Christ is. Chalcedonian Christology has made us more formally aware of the double nature present in Jesus Christ—the divine and the human. In a sense, the recent priests’ congress was Chalcedonian. Some aspects of the experience evoked of the divine; quite other aspects reminded us priests how we and all our efforts are just too human. Even in the conduct of the congress it was so clear.

We are who we are because of the Spirit of God. The talks and reflections of Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa and Bishop Chito Tagle made priests focus on the Holy Spirit and other aspects of the faith and the priestly ministry often taken for granted. I found it spiritually reinvigorating to once again re-focus on the Divine Person of Power given us in a special way through ordination be recognized again as the power that had conquered the primeval abyss in Genesis’ account of creation and transformed it into a cosmos, the well-ordered universe as we know it. Fr. Cantalamessa underscored what I’ve always felt to be a neglected role of the Spirit both in the universe outside us and the universe within us. He transforms whatever chaos our humanity puts us in and turns it into a cosmos. That for me leads to another insight: Without the Spirit of God our inner and outer worlds return to the primeval abyss. In priests’ personal and ministerial lives that can easily be proved. Any priest could attest to how his mere efforts alone could reap from even the most well-planned and systematized pastoral program a letdown instead of a success. For instance, even the seemingly well-oiled and tested B.E.C. program a priest continually struggles to launch, keep alive or rekindle often becomes an exercise in frustration when it does not give any real justice to the Spirit’s role. The B.E.C. could well be simply a product of hierarchical effort instead of being a fruit of the Spirit that it should be. That, I believe, is why in many places the B.E.C. sputters and pants for air rather than ablaze with spiritual fire. Simply put, our B.E.C. programs should be truly placed under the auspices of the Spirit, the real principle of evangelization. I’m not saying it is not so right now. I’m saying that insofar as the Spirit’s role is concerned there is plenty to be desired in the present reality of BEC-building in our dioceses.

Because the Holy Spirit is ‘Love in Person’, priests who move in his light live and move in love. Of all realities a priest deals with in his life, love is probably the one most taken for granted. It is a sine-qua-non in his vocabulary when preaching, teaching or counseling. But, if I may be allowed to put it differently, love is scarcely a reality positively and expressly acknowledged behaviorally by priests. In the priests’ sub-culture love is better done than talked about especially in ordinary conversations or in the humdrum of everyday life and ministry. Love sounds like a corny joke when uttered by a priest who hardly attends priests’ assemblies and gatherings, constantly whines about anything, habitually gossips and backbites against fellow priests or cares little about his poor parishioners’ inability to cope with his ever increasing fees for services. Another insight that struck some priests from my diocese was the challenge to assess our diocesan structures as to whether or not they incorporate love. In contrast to ‘structures of sin’ should be ‘structured love’ made real in diocesan programs, policies etc. I remember a priest asking rather soulfully if our policy of financial centralization is driven by love or the need to implement a program.

Sublime thoughts during talks and shared reflections; near chaos afterwards or during the in-betweens. One of the ironies of priestly life is how, while we try to proclaim and reflect the Christ-life, we could end up imitating the world and the local culture instead. The just-concluded priests’ congress provided ample samples. Please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying we priests are incapable of discipline. We are, there’s no doubt about it, thanks to years of seminary formation. But all those years often easily fall by the wayside when, during meals, we try line up for food and beverage or when, during group meetings, there are donations or gifts to share. Then and there we abandon years of seminary discipline behind us and reflect the local culture—that is, engage in organized chaos to be able to get ahead of the rest of the pack. It is so easy to switch from community to crowd in big priests’ gatherings.

Host families: blessings and ‘blessferings’ (if you know what I mean). We are eternally grateful and indebted to our lay host families. We appreciate their sacrifices and often unbounded hospitality and generosity. (For instance, there was this family man who bought the priest he was hosting, together with a troop of other priests lining up, tickets to the ‘Avatar’ at the Mall of Asia’s IMAX theatre. Each ticket amounted to 400 pesos. This author deeply regretted he had already bought a ticket before he met the very generous host.) On the other hand, I can’t help feeling for some of us who had to travel for three hours in the morning daily to reach the venue of the congress because host families live somewhere far in the metropolis. There was a priest who had to share the same bed with a companion priest (he confessed it was the first time he ‘slept with another man’, a pillow in between them like the Great Wall) because the host family’s only boy would not give up his bed for the other priest. (I don’t agree either that the boy should have been deprived of his own bed even for a priest). That’s what I call ‘blessfering’ (from ‘blessing’ and ‘suffering’ as one). The priests took all this good-naturedly (who says priests can’t be gracious guests too?) as extensions of their “seminary immersion days”. But one did wonder loudly, “I thought I was here for a retreat, not immersion”. If I may suggest to the organizers of the congress (this is shared even by some priests of the host dioceses): How about religious houses, rectories, seminaries or hotels owned by sympathetic lay brethren to accommodate participants in future priests’ congresses? That is, aside from the lay host families who reside not too far from the congress venue. Another suggestion: Could the activities in host families’ homes be sliced down a bit so priests don’t have to go through other ‘mini-retreats’ or ‘retreat extensions’ on top of the ‘congress retreat’ itself? To our organizers and hosts: CONGRATS and A MILLION THANKS!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Priest is Called by God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit

A priest once told his confreres over dinner of a childless middle-aged couple in his parish who hired a barrio lass as housekeeper. She turned out to be an excellent cook too. Unfortunately, she had a habit of listening to the couple’s private conversations. She noticed how the wife calls her husband from time to time. “Darling, your newspaper is here”, “Darling, please check our electric bill”, “Darling, your compadre Peter just texted you” etc. One evening, after the table was set for supper, the wife told her: “Call my husband now. It’s time to eat.” The housekeeper dutifully went upstairs and, within the hearing of the wife, called out to the man of the house: “Darling, dinner is ready!” The wife nearly had a heart attack. The lass mistakenly thought ‘Darling’ was the man’s name.

A person calls another person always for a specific purpose. When God calls each prophet in the Old Testament it is specifically to bear and declare his word to them, whether of joy or of judgment. When Isaiah is called, for instance, it is to bear God’s Word declaring his will to call all people to himself, not simply Israel. The barrio lass in our story could not share in the couple’s exclusive relationship. But the same thing is not true to God’s relationship with Israel. The prophet puts it in terms of calling all peoples to his holy mountain. “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, ministering to him…them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer” (Is 56:6-7). This is clearly a judgment passed on some Israelites’ mistaken sense of having an exclusive right to being God’s People. I remember an OFW friend in Rome who shared how his Jewish “employer” often taunted him: “You Christians stole everything you got from us Jews. But make no mistake. Only Jews are the Chosen People.” One could probably also say: “Oh yes. But also make no mistake. Isaiah says God calls all peoples to his holy mountain, not simply Israel.”

On the other hand, the priest of the NT is an agent of this universal call. Israel according to Isaiah’s vision is precisely God’s People so that through Israel all peoples, all nations of the earth, could be called to share in the blessings of God’s People. In fact, the priest of the Catholic Church mainly comes from every nation other than Israel. He is a living testament of this universal call.

But the point is, it’s God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who extends this call to the person he wants to be a priest. As the Catechism for Filipino Catholics says, the call that every Christian hears, especially the priest, to follow Christ, “is a free gift of God, grounded in the Father’s free loving choice, who blesses us in His Son, Christ Jesus, and seals us with the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13-14)”. But how does this apply to the priestly vocation? Pastores Davo Vobis teaches that it is by virtue of consecration in ordination (PDV 12). Through Sacrament of Orders, “the priest is sent forth by the Father, through the mediatorship of Jesus Christ…in order to live and work by the power of the Holy Spirit in the service of the Church.”

This truth has sobering consequences. First, it tells us, yet again, the true origin of the priestly vocation. I had once a conversation with a mother who was heartbroken that her son left the seminary. I had to tell her, “It’s not we, it’s God who calls anyone to the priesthood. No matter how good our intentions are, it’s still God who makes priests.” Second, it also clarifies to everyone, especially the priest, why his vocation is inextricably tied to ‘community’. At times we priests and lay people alike talk of community building like it’s the latest craze in contemporary Church life. It barely scratches the surface. The truth is, since it is the Divine Community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit who calls certain persons to be priests, that call is understandably both to share in the Trinitarian life and to extend that life to others. The fruit of his response is always a community he builds after the image of the Trinity.