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. NiƱo 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!