Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Christmas is all about presences

IT all began with a fascination. I was simply struck one day by the story of two men sharing the same experience with God’s Presence (the ‘Shekinah’). No ordinary men these two, with names enough to send anyone yawning—Abraham and Moses.

Their experience may, at first, ring familiar. But I wouldn’t suggest that we take it lightly. A story is told of their encounter with God and the Bible presents it as an encounter with his living presence. For instance, even as he reaches the age of ninety-nine, Abraham is visited by a peculiar phenomenon. The Lord appears to him saying: “I am God the Almighty. Walk in my presence and be blameless…” (Gen 17:1). On his part, when Moses expresses self-doubt regarding his worthiness to represent Yahweh before Israel and pharaoh, the Lord replies: “I will be with you; and this shall be your proof (the sign) that it is I who have sent you: when you bring my people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain” (Ex 3:12).

There is a dispute among scholars as to the meaning of the sign being spoken of here. Some say that the sign follows the fact of the liberation of Israel from Egypt and, therefore, it is the worship to be rendered to God on the mountain (Horeb). But other scholars also say that the “I will be with you” assurance of God’s presence with Moses is itself the sign that God had really sent Moses (cf. Richard J. Clifford, S.J.). No matter what the angle anyone adopts, the experience of both patriarchs is that when this God calls, he brings his total presence to those he calls and he expects that they reciprocate. When Yahweh calls Abraham and Moses, he makes clear that he is with them and demands that they be with him too.

So far, are you with me in this?

It is because of the presence of God with them that Abraham and Moses are able not only to enjoy bountiful blessings but also to endure challenges, trials and even, especially in the case of Moses, perform wondrous deeds. Think of the blessings of property, wealth and especially of progeny, i.e., being a “father of many nations” through Isaac that went to Abraham because of Yahweh’s presence in his life. But also consider how Moses engineered the ten plagues in Egypt together with the final liberation of Israel from slavery because of Yahweh’s presence with him too. Besides all these, think of how Abraham passed the greatest trial of his life, i.e., God’s command that Isaac be sacrificed, or how Moses weathered the hard-headedness of Israel, the fierceness of their enemies as well as the envy even of his brother Aaron and sister Miriam because of Yahweh’s presence with them.

I often hear engaged and married couples say to one another that because of the presence of the other person in their lives, their lives have never been the same. I know of a sickly woman whose boy friend has been a constant source of strength for her in dealing with her dreaded health problems. I know of a man who has left his entire past of drugs and debauchery ever since a woman he loves has been with him as his wife for the past twenty-five years. I know of formerly ill dressed, unkempt and dirty children who suddenly bloomed in grooming and behavior when their mother arrived from abroad and is devoting plenty of time and attention to them. If the presence of certain persons in our lives can make so much difference, how much more if it is the presence of the personal God?

In the seminary we were constantly told to cultivate a sense of the presence of God in our lives. We were amply encouraged to heighten our awareness of his presence through prayer, especially through the Eucharist and our visits to the Blessed Sacrament, through the apostolate and compassionate participation in the struggle of the poor for justice and peace. But there are things we can learn from Abraham and Moses in their cultivation of God’s presence. In both of them we see faith as expressed in terms of obedience to the word of the Lord. But we also see them being asked to give and keep an external, palpable sign of their cultivation of the presence of Yahweh. For Abraham and his descendants it is the practice of the circumcision in order that the bond born of the covenant might not be forgotten (Gen 17:10-14). For Moses and the people of Israel it is the keeping of the charter, the Ten Commandments, as further delineated and exposed in the succeeding laws decreed by Moses.

From this we gather that the cultivation of the presence of God involves not only the internal realities of faith expressed in terms of obedience to God’s will but also external realities such as written rules and regulations by which that will is expressed in the many circumstances of daily life. In a word, the cultivation of the presence of God in us and with us involves our total life and our total being, not just our souls or spirits nor only of our material or bodily selves. God makes a total gift of himself to us. The only right response is also our total gift of ourselves to him. He is totally present to us. We must be totally present to him.

And don’t we see the real good news? Yes, and it’s been staring us full in the face. Christmas is nothing but the physical actualization of ‘Shekinah’ (God-With-us): Jesus makes God permanently present to us by becoming one like us, a human being.

Or let me put it this way. Most of us love music. And most of the music we love are love songs. Who among us hadn’t noticed, as I have, the fairly numerous songs that have the clause “I’ll Be There”? Last 1995 there was a survey that singled out one song that was constantly being played in public places, elevators, restaurants, airports etc. It was the overwhelming choice of so many people, especially the young. The title of the song? “I’ll Be There for You (You’re All I Need to Get By)”. Then an Italian song captured the hearts of many people in 1998 when it was sung by a blind singer named Andrea Boccelli. It was entitled “Con Te Partiró” (With You I Shall Leave) and tells of how the presence of a loved one gives one light and the possibility of realizing dreams.

I have a theory that the reason behind this is that there is a deep longing in each human being for someone who is always there for us. Lovers think it is their loved one. Children think it is their parents. Couples think it is their spouses. A barkada thinks it is friends. The only problem with these is that, however we feel strongly about it, the need for someone who is always there for us cannot be filled in by another human being. Somehow or other our loved ones or friends have to leave our side.

In the middle of all this we hear a prophecy in the OT from Isaiah. “Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Is 7:14). The gospel of Mt explains the word “Immanuel” saying that it is “a name which means ‘God is with us’” (Mt 1:23). This is part the address of the angel to Joseph reassuring him that the baby in the womb of Mary his wife comes from the Holy Spirit (Mt 1:20). Lk specifies the name of the child to be born of Mary through the angel’s words to her: “You shall conceive and bear a son and give him the name Jesus” (Lk 1: 31). In a word, Jesus himself is the Immanuel, the God-with-us .

We don’t have simply the testimony of Mt and Lk. We also have that of Jn. At the very start of his gospel he declares solemnly: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory: the glory of an only Son coming from the Father, filled with enduring love” (Jn 1:1, 14).

I remember a young man I know who met someone through the social media. He thought he found the woman of his dreams, someone he would love to be with and who would love to be with him the rest of his life. They agreed to meet in a restaurant. But, alas, when he saw her, he felt like running away. Her e-photo and his idea of her somehow didn’t quite match the real person in front of him. She felt the same way about him. They had to part ways in a huff. The wisdom that we learn from experience, and which had been articulated by St. Augustine, is that we will never be able to find any special someone who is always there for us among our fellow creatures, no matter their beautiful or caring ways, no matter the advances of social communications.

Only God in Jesus Christ fills up this need.

He is the Word who is God who “pitched his tent” among us in order to be our permanent companion. Exactly the whole point of Christmas. The evidence? How about the Scriptures where the Word, Jesus Christ, permanently addresses and transforms countless human beings who care to hear and do what he says. Or take the Eucharist, the sacrament of Christ’s permanent presence where his Body and Blood bring us his whole person daily wherever we are. Or how about the Blessed Sacrament where Jesus always awaits us and makes good his words in Mt’s gospel: “Behold, I am with you all days till the end of the world” (Mt 28:20). And how about you and me who always find him even after sin sometimes snatches us away, only to drop us into pits of agony.

Are you with me still? Oh, thank you very much, but what really matters for you and for me is that he always is. And it does matter tremendously for him that we be with him too. From this Christmas on.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Man: crown or frown of God’s creation?

I WAS once on my way to Borongan and was driving very slowly as I climbed a hilly road at Brgy Can-abong. In fact, my speed was between 30 to 40 KPH. All of a sudden a dog crossed the road. I remember reducing my speed to 25 KPH. To my horror, as it reached the other side of the road, the dog made a turn-around and ran back to the middle of the road right smack against the car. It was too late. I had neither way nor time to avoid it. Before I knew it, the car hit the dog. I heard an incredible noise as I automatically stepped on the brakes. I said to myself, “I could have killed a dog today.” But, to my surprise, the dog was not hit by the tires. It simply ran through the middle of the car’s tires and, when I looked back, I saw it running away in the direction of a house. I breathed a sigh of relief. But a thought occurred to me, “What if it was a child?” I felt a cold sweat run through my neck.

Why is it that when drivers talk of running over dogs or chickens there is not much concern? But when they talk of accidentally hitting a child, the equation changes radically? The answer is simple. Because it involves a human life and a human life is notches higher than those of dogs and chickens or any other animals. But where did we get this idea? Where else but from the Scriptures, specifically from the book of Genesis 1:26-27. It is only when he creates the human being that God makes a radical change in the form and substance of his act of creating. Form because he no longer just wills and commands into existence a creature he envisions. He seems to speak to another person or other persons with him, “Let us make man in our image and likeness”. Biblical experts are at variance about what this signifies.

There are those who say the expression is just ‘majestic plural’ underlining God’s transcendence. But there are those who say that these words contain the seeds of the doctrine of the Trinity. However, our point at issue is the high value of the creature, the human being—in God’s image and likeness. Scholastic philosophy had taught that this can only mean that the human person shares in God’s properties of intellect and will. Genesis does not explicitly explain what it means. But we are given an important hint when it speaks of how the human being must have “dominion” over creatures under him, namely, the birds, the fishes and all others lower in rank. Gaudium et Spes again declares that it is a unanimous teaching of “believers and unbelievers alike” that “all things on earth should be related to human persons as their center and crown” (GS 12).

Psalm 8: 5-7 is even more explicit: “What is man that you should be mindful of him or the son of man that you should care for him? You have made him little less than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him rule over the works of your hands, putting all things under his feet.”

This is why we say no to extra-judicial killings, the capital punishment, wars, murders, homicides, abortions and, by extension, to contraception. Why no to contraception? Let me illustrate from our everyday experience. Why do we fence our houses or lock our doors especially when we are resting? Because we want to defend our lives and the lives of those inside the house. Saying no to contraception is our act of fencing around human life, whether or not that life is already in the womb or still to be formed. We want to defend it because it is not just any creature’s life. It is the life of God’s ‘image and likeness’. We say no to suicides for the same reason. By what logic do we appropriate for ourselves the act of ending life since it is not our own to dispose of but God’s? We certainly are alive but only because God has gifted us with life. In the case of human life the receiver does not own the gift.

Not only that. Human life has such a soaring value because, as the gospel of Luke 1:26-38 attests, the Son of God became a human being through Mary. As the Blessed Pope John Paul II once taught, when the Son of God became a human being, he effectively united himself with every human being. In other words, human life is valuable not only because the human person was created in God’s image and likeness but, more so, because the human person through Christ has become God’s son, God’s child. When people tell me of times when they are tempted to give in to thoughts of abortion, abuse or contraception, I tell them about my first-year college friend who is fond of the words “paradigm shift”. And I would say, “Why don’t you too make a paradigm shift to more positive thoughts on the dignity of human life and how before the Lord every human life is sacred because it is life that has no identification other than ‘of God’, ‘for God’ and ‘with God’ as his child?”

When we consider the mystery of God becoming man, Mary provides us the example of how to respond to God’s action. She is disturbed when the angel tells her of the news because, apparently (as the early Fathers of the Church taught) she was not intent on marriage. But as God’s plan becomes more transparent, with the involvement of the Holy Spirit and God’s power, Mary decides by faith. She gives her assent and, with it, her complete and full obedience to God’s plan. “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to your word.”

I was struck by a nun’s story of a woman who wanted to have an abortion so she could apply for a visa to Japan. She was brought to the nun’s convent. Thinking she could get an abortion there, she was given counseling instead. Still determined to have an abortion, the nun just entrusted her to the Lord in prayer. The next time the woman called, she informed the nun she had decided to keep her baby and say goodbye to Japan. That, to my mind, was a definitive paradigm shift. When a healthy beautiful baby was born, the happy mother said how right her decision was and thanked the nun for her counseling but, especially, for her prayers.

The only paradigm shift worth taking is one that leads to preserving human life because the human person who possesses it is the crown of God’s creation. The opposite paradigm makes the crown a tragic frown.

Monday, October 10, 2011

What should be happening to our beautiful land

BLESSED John Paul II is deeply revered in the Philippines.

Unknown to many Filipinos, some of the things he taught urgently apply to us today as we witness the tragedy of frighteningly more severe typhoons, as PAG-ASA warns us, floods that refuse to abate or the imminent specter of harsher and longer droughts ultimately related to climate change which is itself traceable to environmental degradation. The abnormal will be the norm, as a local government official sadly remarked in an interview. All because we disobey the most basic one.

In his January 1, 1990 message for the World Day of Peace entitled Peace With God the Creator, Peace With All of Creation Pope John Paul II once described a situation that rings familiar: “In our day, there is a growing awareness that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts and continued injustices among peoples and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature, by the plundering of natural resources and by a decline in the quality of life. The sense of precariousness and insecurity that such a situation engenders is a seedbed for collective selfishness, disregard for others and dishonesty [italics in the text]” (PWGCPWAC, no. 1).

I can’t agree more. Peace is certainly compromised and even diminished, if not entirely lost among victims of calamities traceable to the abuse of the environment. It strikes me, however, that Blessed John Paul II was not content in simply citing a destructive fact. He also pointed to human factors that are at play in such a situation, realities that are also at the root of the problem: “collective selfishness, disregard for others and dishonesty”. I find this striking because such a focus is what we often miss as we grapple with the ecological crisis in our midst. After a tragedy we usually start playing the blame game. We ask: Who are responsible for the evil we suffer? We do everything we can to identify its human causes.

Naturally the exercise is helpful and even necessary to a degree. But the late pope even now is reminding us that there are deeper causes, still human, but more sinister because they lie inside humans. They influence human thinking, decisions, behavior and lifestyle. Whether we like it or not, they are as real as the names of criminal individuals or groups we wish uncovered.

“Collective selfishness” truly explains our behavior when we choose money or profit in exchange for our mountains, lands or bodies of water being ravaged by deforestation, irresponsible mining (we need to ask when has mining been responsible in our country), tons of garbage or runaway pollution.

When we mind only our convenience and throw our waste anywhere, when we see only revenue coming in from the mining or logging industries and turn a blind eye on the devastation they generate on the patrimony of the future generations, do we hear the Holy Father’s warning of our wanton “disregard for others”?

When we try to justify the abusive exploitation of our natural resources by the jobs it generates or the economic development it intends to achieve, don’t we close our ears to the Holy Father’s exhortation that we avoid “dishonesty”?

At the bottom of the ecological crisis are not simply the names of failed officials or government agencies. More fundamentally we face its moral roots.

Earlier, the Philippine Bishops in their January 29, 1988 Pastoral Letter entitled What Is Happening To Our Beautiful Land assessed our situation then with brutal honesty: “To put it simply, our country is in peril. All the living systems on land and in the seas around us are being ruthlessly exploited. The damage to date is extensive and, sad to say, it is often irreversible. One does not need to be an expert to see what is happening and to be profoundly troubled by it.”

Then the document brings out in greater detail indicators of the catastrophe: “Within a few short years brown, eroded hills have replaced luxuriant forests in many parts of the country (a situation already becoming critical in a number of our towns and barangays in Eastern Samar). We see dried up river beds where, not so long ago, streams flowed throughout the year (ours are river beds becoming polluted by toxic waste from unregulated mining ventures or becoming depleted by excessive quarrying and improper disposal of human-generated waste). Farmers tell us that, because of erosion and chemical poisoning, the yield from the croplands has fallen substantially. Fishermen and experts on marine life have a similar message. Their fish catches are shrinking in the wake of the extensive destruction of coral reefs and mangrove forests. The picture which is emerging in every province of the country is clear and bleak.”

One wonders if there had been any progress at all since this 1988 statement. Even then the Bishops already warned us of the injustice waiting to happen even on a people yet unborn: “The attack on the natural world which benefits very few Filipinos is rapidly whittling away at the very base of our living world and endangering its fruitfulness for future generations.”

It is clear that the alarming abuse of our environment reveals its moral roots. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines morality as the state or condition of our human acts being ‘good’, that is when they lead us to our “last end”, namely God himself, or ‘bad’ when they lead us away from him (CCC 1749-1761). If I give you food out of compassion when you are hungry and unable to provide food for yourself, I do a very moral act. It is precisely moral because it brings me to God or closer to him. On the other hand, if I curse or stab you out of hatred for you or the beliefs you espouse, I do an immoral act and it is precisely immoral because it leads me away from God who is my ultimate end and whose nature is Love, the opposite of hatred or selfishness. Now let’s turn to the issue on hand. Human attitudes, decisions and acts leading to environmental abuse are outlined by Pope John Paul II as: “collective selfishness, disregard for others and dishonesty”. Of course there are other names and more specific roots behind environmental abuse, such as “greed” or the “insatiable desire for profit” and the inordinate drive for “power”.

Karl Marx once uttered an observation Marxists consider a maxim: “The material base determines the lifestyle”. In other words, the extent of my wealth (material base) could measure the kind of behavior I may exhibit (lifestyle). If I were wealthy, that would place within my reach the best clothes or food denied to others but, with it, also a capacity to an exploitative lifestyle. Wealth, moreover, will give me power that I could use to abuse people and even the earthly goods at my disposal. When I mindlessly exploit the environment, for example, I might say I am doing it to feed my family or the families of people I employ (deception and dishonesty) when I actually do so for the considerable profit I stand to gain (insatiable drive for wealth), I doubtless do a grossly immoral act. The reason is simple. My actions do not bring me any closer to God but to things that I could use as substitutes for God. Moreover, my action of environmental abuse cannot be moral because I do it in total disregard of the welfare of others, including that of the future generations. God is love and when my behavior is not motivated by love, it cannot lead me to him. As John the evangelist reminds us, “He who does not love does not know God for God is love” (1 Jn 4:8).

What should be happening to our beautiful land?
Our own CONVERSION as individuals and as a nation.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Lola Goria

SHE is 91 going on 92. She lives in a rundown nipa hut just across San Roque chapel in Sitio Nabiyawan. You would be utterly mistaken if you think her hut’s conditions reveal hers. Of course, she is not in the best physical state. Every day of her life since she was rendered unable to walk she sits on a meter-and-a-half long and a foot-wide bench by her window. It’s there that she recites her daily rosaries, reads her novenas, some still of Spanish vintage, and talks to her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren (if they happen to be around) of God and of right living. She is the most senior woman I know in Nabiyawan (‘oldest’ is a word that, in my considered judgment, would not describe with justice the grace with which she carries her age and character).

I marvel at her energy, sharp wit and prayerfulness. Two of her grandchildren live with her and take care of her. There’s no visible bed nor bedroom in the house, only a bare floor of bamboo and wood, a curtain to create instant privacy, a mat and an altar at a corner. The bathroom is somewhere outside the house and I was debating with myself how she, with only two boys with her, could stay as clean, dignified and composed as she is when I give her communion, what with the boys’ obvious dutifulness to their lola often intermingling with their normal playfulness and nonchalance.

Remember the smell that ordinarily greets you when you enter a bed-ridden senior citizen’s place? Lola Goria has none of that. “And, Father,” her grandchild told me, “she still does the sewing and with her bare eyes still gets the thread into the needle’s eye like she is twenty-three.”

If she were in America, Europe or the affluent countries (as some Filipino senior citizens are when they are lucky enough to have children there), she would be in a nursing home or in some state-run institution for people her age and condition. But here in poor Nabiyawan she stays in the same old nipa hut, with two grandchildren and relatives taking turns taking care of her and she, in turn, keeping a role only she or people like her can provide: a source of prayerful guidance and example for the young.

I remember meeting some very elderly Filipinos in nursing homes in Long Island, New York and San Diego, California. I recall, too, how well-cared for they were and how organized, clinical and proper their daily routines. Their children, grandchildren and friends would visit them regularly and just as regularly go back to their lives, leaving them to professional care-givers. Quite a few of them are terribly lonely and miss their families; still others don’t even remember they have families at all.

Then I look at Lola Goria, her grandchildren and her relatives, and how they would pray rosaries together or, in silence, let her pray her novenas and listen to her as she tries to correct misbehaviors or instruct them how to cook the priest’s merienda (you are right, this is something I just imagined, as the merienda is already cooked when I get there). I am positively certain my friends in Long Island and California would shake their heads and express how sorry they are for Lola Goria.

And I would tell them: Who is to say Lola Goria is in a sorrier state than if she were in a nursing home or in a government-run institution for the elderly? Would she be happier than she is now?

Can anyone who is constantly in touch with God and the saints be in a sorry state?

In the final analysis, our weakness (poverty, family ties) is also our strength.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Secular Mindset and Christian Faith

SOMEONE (or is it a collective?) has opened the closet in our country again. Now its occupants are out. I seek pardon from all closets but I compare the culture of death to one of them. I assume a number of so called “churchy” people—which include clerics and many lay Catholics who take their faith seriously—would have noticed not only the seemingly endless rains and flooding (and been alarmed, too, by them, naturally) visiting us these days in the Philippines with cruel regularity.

They would have also noticed how in the heat of the on-going national debate on the RH Bill, some vociferous groups have begun efforts to introduce divorce to congressional legislation and others have even gone further by performing same-sex marriages in Baguio City or elsewhere. To me the force of Mother Nature only indicates the presence of another force slowly flooding up our shores. To be sure, it’s actually been there for a long time.

I call it the secular mindset. We know a growing number of Filipinos today would insist on being Catholic Christian through and through but also on being firm advocates of the RH Bill, divorce, abortion, same-sex marriage and even some qualified form of euthanasia. Indeed, truth could be stranger than fiction. If they were to ask me what I mean by “secular mindset”, I would say, “Do you remember the anecdote of a small fish asking another fish what an ocean is and is answered, ‘You are swimming in it’? Well, you ask me what a secular mindset is. Let me say the same thing: ‘You are swimming in it’.”

One of the things from our Latin classes in the seminary that has stuck with me to this day is the word ‘secular’ being rooted in the Latin ‘saeculum’ which means world. I find it startling how the ancient Scriptures are so revealing of our contemporary situation in the meanings it unwraps of the term ‘world’. In the first place, world can mean the dwelling place of man where his human existence unfolds (Jn 1:9; 16:21). Secondly, it can mean human beings taken separately from other creatures as subject of redemption, as in, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that those who believe in him may not perish but may have everlasting life” (Jn 3:16). It is this world that God has willed to reconcile with himself through the cross of his Son Jesus Christ (2 Cor 5:19) who abolishes its sin (Jn 1:29).

But, the current secular mindset is relevant when we turn to the third meaning of ‘world’. The evangelist John also speaks of ‘world’ which means the present state of creation in which human beings are organized without regard for God or his values and, in fact, could be at enmity with him because it is dominated by the “prince of this world” (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). The impact of this meaning came to me one evening when I watched a replay of a televised debate between pro- and anti-RH Bill advocates. A pro-RH Bill lawyer could no longer contain her exasperation with the seemingly solid wall type of argumentation from the other side, especially the ones quoting Scriptures. She said point-blank that religion has no business in legislation. Religion should not interfere in the making of laws. How easy it is to forget that religion originated human laws: e.g. outlawing murder and adultery.

I marvel at how uncannily accurate the insight of Scriptures on the two ‘worlds’ existing side by side then and, especially, now here in the Philippines and throughout the whole earth: a ‘world’ which opens itself to the Redeemer and a ‘world’ that is both closed and/or hostile to him. The trickery of the prince of this world is so sophisticated that it has convinced promoters of ‘world’ as organized humanity without or against God to be themselves bona-fide members of the ‘world’ as theater of God’s redemption in Christ. How else could we explain Catholics promoting with dogged determination contraception, divorce, legalized abortion, same-sex marriages, euthanasia etc. and believe they are still Catholics? Can a circle call itself a square? Can the color black convincingly be declared white?

The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, has been warning Catholics and all Christians about this kind of ‘world’ in the secularism so pervasive in many societies and cultures of the contemporary setting. And he has done this for the longest time. Apparently in the Philippines the warning has been hardly heard. Or the louder voices of various hostile ideological groups have tuned it out.

Again John the evangelist utters eye-opening words: “The light came into the world, but men preferred the dark to the light” and “He was in the world and through him the world was made, yet the world did not know who he was” (Jn 1:10).
But there are three things that should make us take heart.

One, Jesus the Redeemer has already conquered the ‘world’ (Jn 17:33).
Two, the hatred of the ‘world’ is a sign of salvation because the ‘world’ hates what it does not have (Jn 15:19).

Three, those who are begotten by God conquer this ‘world’ and “the victory that conquers the world is our faith” (1 Jn 5:4).

But what is this faith that conquers? I suggest to all parties of the debates to ponder the teachings of the Scriptures. And Scriptures not only recommend faith but also describe the faith that conquers and saves.

One, it is the faith that listens to the Word of the Lord. “My sheep listen to my voice” (Jn 10:27).

Two, it is the faith that gives its assent to the Word. Here our model is Mary the Mother of God’s Son, our foremost model of faith: “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).

Three, it is the faith that commits one’s whole self to the Lord and completely relies on his Word. Here our model is the centurion: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. But only say the word and my servant will be healed” (Mt 8:8).

Four, it is the faith that involves a sharing of life with the Redeemer, having a personal relationship with him. The faithful believing community manifests this. “I know my sheep and mine know me” (Jn 10::14, 27).

Five, it is the faith that obeys the Word. “My sheep follow me” (Jn 10:27). That is to say, true faith is shown in our obedience to the Lord, not to the world. A Christian having a secular mindset? John’s answer is a description of the Christian: in the world but not of the world (Jn 15:19).

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Raging against the RH Bill

THERE is out there a bitter battle whose roots are inside our souls. It is actually born of a war much bigger in magnitude, much deeper in reach and much more comprehensive in scope. And, by the way, this is no mountain out of a molehill I’m making. Paul the apostle to the Gentiles speaks part of what I’m saying as he warns the Ephesian Christians: “Put on the armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the evil one. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers, against the world rulers of this darkness” (Eph 6:11-12). This is not quite a description of pro-RH Bill advocates. And I don’t intend to enter into a name-calling game with any party to the issue. All I wish to make is perspective. Paul’s words remind us of the real war. What we have in the Philippines is a battle within it.

The poet Dylan Thomas once wrote a poem that makes a counsel: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

That is what the Church in the Philippines seems to be doing. The Philippine Church at this day and age appears like a raging bull against the raring RH bill train. At least to me the observation holds. To the local media, though, caught in the habit of making a one-sided spin favoring the bill itself, the Church seems a raging bull, all right, but not against the dying of the light. Rather it rages against the light itself perceived as the rational, pro-poor, pro-chance, pro-development population plan that the bill embodies. The pro-RH Bill proponents are cast as enlightened, pragmatic, patriotic, compassionate and more numerous while the anti-RH Bill advocates to which the Church aligns herself are seen as antediluvian in thinking, narrow-minded, extremely malicious allies of Padre Damasos that are behind the ‘dark ages’ mindsets they represent. Very often pro-RH Bill critics argue not against the Church’s position but against the persons perceived as Church, namely, the hierarchy. The Church’s stance cannot be supported, so the reasoning goes, because certain priests and bishops are child molesters, sex offenders, closet fathers etc. You can’t argue against the message. Hit the messengers. You can’t destroy their argument. Destroy those you argue against. Or cast them as very few in number. Let democracy rule.

This reminds me of a news conference former US President Jimmy Carter once conducted in which he was asked if it was not fair that women who can afford abortions get them while women who cannot afford them are precluded. His reply: “Well, as you know, there are many things in this life that are not fair, that wealthy people can afford and poor people can’t. But I don’t believe that Federal Government should take action to try to make these opportunities exactly equal, particularly when there is a moral factor involved.”

To this Pnoy this strikes the heart of the matter. There is a moral factor involved in the RH Bill and the bill as well as its proponents scarcely take it as crucial, which it is. Ironically, its principal proponent, President Noynoy Aquino, speaks of doing the “right thing”, walking the “matuwid na landas” as his reason in advancing the bill. There is no ‘right thing’ or ‘matuwid na landas’ that leads people away from God and his ways. The slip by Secretary Hillary Clinton who explained “reproductive health” in terms of giving people access to “contraception and safe abortions” indicates not only where the RH Bill may be ultimately headed but also what it ignores.

It ignores the moral factor and when it does, what ‘landas’ (path) can be ‘matuwid’ (right)?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The addict and the resurrection

EASTER is not abstract. Easter is not just a feast. Easter is very personal. Easter is a fact in people’s lives. This I found out years ago in a strange encounter.

The parish secretary told me a man was looking for a priest to talk to. When I appeared, he began to speak but halted, as if unsure of himself. He seemed in some kind of pain. No, he was not ill, if by ill you mean bodily illness. He hesitated once more. But he did not hide. “I’m an addict, Father,” he said tersely. I remembered conjuring images of heroin or other substances of the same kind and bottles of alcohol. I was getting ready to dismiss our meeting with, “I’m sorry, I may not be competent to give you the help you really need.” But it was my turn to hesitate. On the other hand, he seemed like a bird trying to force its way out of a cage. “I’m an addict to porno, Father. I’ve been into porno at the internet…I have collections of porno materials, shows, films, literature. Name a porno show or film, I probably have it. I’m here because, because I’m looking for spiritual help…”

I tried to be encouraging. I commended his courage to face up to his ‘enslavement’, if I may call it that way. I said that I was glad he was specifically looking for spiritual help from a priest and that his problem also has other components that a clinical psychologist or doctor may be better equipped to help him. He promised me to see one after the meeting.

It was almost a whole afternoon chat on prayer, the sacraments and especially the sacrament of Penance, of the Paschal Mystery, of how Moses leading Israel out of Egypt speaks of the living God who abhors people being in the grip of slavery, and that our basic slavery is to sin and its many ugly faces and tentacles, such as his addiction to porno which, I stressed, is basically rooted in the distorted view of the body as an object man can treat at his pleasure instead of temple of the Spirit he ought to reverence. There is only one way out, I said—Jesus Christ whom we can access through the Scriptures, prayer and especially the sacraments. He offered no resistance to what I later feared amounted to a spiritual bombardment I was giving him. But, to be honest, I saw no signs in our conversation that it was getting through. Until he asked me to hear his confession, that is. It took almost four hours for him to decide to go to confession. But the decision didn’t surprise me at all. It seemed of a piece with why the meeting happened in the first place.

Having given the absolution, I recall feeling relieved he will be in somebody else’s hands to help him deal with the other aspects of his ‘addiction’. One blissful aftermath of being a minister of the sacrament of Penance is the sense of being an instrument of someone’s inner liberation. On a personal level, another is forgetfulness. People seem surprised when I say this but whenever I turn away from a confession most of the time I feel my mind is a blank sheet once again. As we used to say in Latin class of a classmate who understood nothing of the day’s lesson, “tamquam tabula rasa”.

Then, several weeks after, I stumbled again into my friend the “addict”, unintentionally and without warning, in church. He asked me if I still remembered him. Of course, I said. “I just want to thank you, Father, for that afternoon meeting. After my confession, I made a decision to get rid of all my porno files and materials. What stuck in my mind was the body as ‘temple of the Spirit’. I never knew how good it feels to be free…” As if his smile didn’t say it all.

While he was still speaking my own mind raced to a privileged visit I had to a place whose specific name I couldn’t recall near Bethany in mid 90s. I was in an organized tour of the Holy Land by priests and a few lay couples. Someone took a picture of me as I was coming out of what tradition says was the tomb of Lazarus. My hands were extended in an unmistakable imitation of the UP oblation. I was trying to catch the feeling of the resurrection, nay, resuscitation of Lazarus (with apologies to the experts).

But here was Lazarus before me. His resurrection was no less real.
And the words of the Liberator poured into my ears seemingly out of nowhere: “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in me, even if he dies, will live…”

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

My Father and Evangelization

IT was March 9, 2001 when my father passed away. Allow me to print my thoughts regarding a man I owe a lot to.

I was a scrawny sickly boy. My father—just ‘Tatay’ to all of us his children—was a mechanic and a copra truck driver, mostly one and occasionally the other. My mother—‘Nanay’ to all of us—was a public elementary school teacher. She taught in places either too far or too hard to reach, at least in the initial stages of her career. I remember times as a child, when I was down with fever and my stomach aching so unbearably and my head throbbing, I would call out, “Nanay, Nanay” in pain (I often wondered why it’s the mother we first remember in dire circumstances). But she wasn’t, no she couldn’t, be there. My father, God bless him, would force himself to be there. Now I realize it was such a sacrifice for him. He had to take a leave off work and that meant no money for the family. Still my earliest memory of my father, I mean the one that has stuck to this day, is still very clear. I was a boy of two or three, shivering in thirty-eight-or-so degree fever and in pain, he was carrying me in his arms and rocking me gently, then again gently rolling a bottle filled with warm water over my aching tummy. And, miracle of miracles, the pain would go away. He would them hum or softly sing me to sleep. It seemed all the medicine I needed.

When my father passed on to what I call “the fuller life” on March 9, 2001, a poem which later became a song thrust itself to me through the two words I described him by during a wake I presided over: “GENTLE SOUL”. Yes, my father was to me a gentle soul. He was gentlest to us his children. There were countless times when some of us made him very angry, as when we simply did the opposite of what he asked us to do, and when it seemed he would hit us with his hand or anything near him (as I noticed other fathers did), he would behave in a way that baffled me. For instance, when my sister Annie fell off the roof of a shelter fronting the house we lived in as growing children in my mother’s hometown, it was because we didn’t listen to him telling us not to play on the shelter’s rooftop. He was so angry at our disobedience and raised his hand, I thought he was about to hit us as our just desserts. But when he saw my sister who was in pain as a result of our disobedience, he simply stopped and wept. He simply couldn’t hit us. The effect on us was just as baffling: We never played again on the shelter’s rooftop without making sure we were on its safer side and had our father’s permission.

In so many words I’m simply saying how lucky or shall I say “blessed” I was to have a father like my father. He made it easier for me to pray the “Our Father”. He made it easier for me to understand that God is my Father too whose love is what has made all human beings who we are, what we are and where we are meant to be. My father’s love mirrored God’s love for me and for my siblings in a way no one among us could gainsay. I often felt sorry for other children whose fathers would hit or shout at them in a way that was unlike our Tatay. Incredible as it may seem, he wasn’t any of that. Even when he seemed pained, angered or disappointed with anything we had done, I never sensed for a second that he stopped loving us.

If my father could love us his children the way he did, I often asked myself: “What would it be like to experience the love of God as Father”? His love must be infinitely more and better than my own father’s love for us his family. But now, after so many years, I realize how grateful I should be that my own father had proclaimed to me in anticipation, perhaps unbeknownst even to himself, the love that had led me to the love of God the Father of all.

My father was my first evangelizer. Now, as a priest, I try not to be a bad copy.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Unmasking the ‘Crab Mentality’

A man in San Francisco, it is told, once received notice that his brother in Manila sent him a huge basket full of crabs from the Philippines. But when he went to claim it a customs officer had the names and labels accidentally mixed up. The man ended up being made to choose from among three huge baskets full of crabs the one sent to him. At first, the man appeared upset; then he hit upon an idea. He opened all three baskets and watched. In no time two of the baskets had crabs climbing up to the rim unbothered. The third basket, on the other hand, was oddly quiet. The reason? Every time a crab climbed up it was dutifully pulled down by the others. The man’s face lit up into a smile. Triumphantly he said, “This is it! This third basket is the one from the Philippines!” So goes one more legend of the Pinoy ‘crab mentality’.

The first time I heard this story from a priest in a conversation, spiced up with other hilarious details and embellishments, I remember all six of us laughing so loudly my sides ached. But we all agreed. There’s nothing so Pinoy, so real, so human and so destructive of unity as our so-called ‘crab mentality’.

But what is it about? Why do we have it? What do we do about it?

Some critics say that the ‘crab mentality’ is basically positive; it’s about Pinoys’ collective desire for justice and equality. No one must be given special treatment, all persons being equal (in dignity); all must be treated as such before the law etc. Understandably then, when someone thinks he’s better and deserves better, Pinoys pull him down. This seems fine except that it doesn’t apply in all the social classes. Poor Pinoys are seldom known to practice ‘crab mentality’ in regard to rich Pinoys; and the opposite is unthinkable. The ‘crab mentality’ seems to thrive best when Pinoys are in the same social, professional, work, family and local conditions.

Other critics say that the ‘crab mentality’ is nothing but pure and simple envy. Nothing else explains better, for instance, when a very successful Pinoy or Pinay is showered accolades by everybody but fellow Pinoys. Or when a Pinoy neighbor reacts to a kabayan who acquires the latest SUV or high tech ‘toy’ by himself buying a similar, better and/or more expensive one. Or when a Pinoy/Pinay who becomes an elected leader in a community of kabayans suddenly loses very good friends who later form other Pinoy groups in which they maneuver themselves to leadership positions. “I hate to tell you this,” an American husband said to his Filipino wife, “but what’s keeping you guys from being united is that every time you form an association everybody wants to be president!” Indeed our ‘crab mentality’ has nowhere better to be than the Hall of Shame.

There’s not a single explanation why Pinoys have it or particularly associate Pinoy culture with it. In fact, an Australian, upon reading it being talked about in Manila, promptly called the ‘crab mentality’ an Aussie reality too. Or maybe an American who comes to understand it would also say it’s an American reality. In truth, it’s a human reality. Perhaps we Pinoys have it only to a greater or lesser degree than others. I have a sense that, if we delve into our history a little more deeply, we might discover in our colonial experience of being regarded a race well below that of our colonizers part of the explanation.

But deal with it we must today. Let me suggest that, first of all, we must name what it really represents. If it represents the real aspiration for justice and equality in social relations, in giving and receiving equal services, in seeking equal treatment before the law, then the ‘crab mentality’ is the right mentality. But if it represents envy, then we had better listen to our conscience and the voice of our faith. Those who are the object of the ‘crab mentality’ do very well when they put on humility because the success, wealth or power that set them up above fellow Pinoys are passing gifts in a temporary existence; they do even better when they use these things generously to express compassion and service to others. When we are tempted to adopt the ‘crab mentality’ we must listen to St. John Chrysostom when he said: “Would you like to see God glorified by you? Then rejoice in your brother’s progress and you will immediately give glory to God. Because his servant could conquer envy by rejoicing in the merits of others, God will be praised.” St. Thomas More saw the things that invite envy differently. “If we were to…esteem everything according to its true nature, rather than according to men’s false opinion, then we would never see any reason to envy any man, but rather pity every man—and pity those most who have the most to be envied for, since they are the ones who will shortly lose the most.”

‘Crab mentality’? For crabs maybe. For us Pinoys, I think there’s only one option: ‘Pinoy mentality’.

Monday, January 17, 2011


Most of us here in the province of Eastern Samar will readily agree, if only it’s possible, to share a great bulk of pure unadulterated water we keep receiving from heaven since the first rays of 2011 appeared in our skies. Anyone interested? Please call St. Peter’s office immediately. Or visit the pertinent website at we.share.heavenly.water.net. Of course, there had been respites from the rains (and we are very grateful to the Almighty for them), including sunny January celebrations of the Feasts of the Nazarene and the Sto. Niño (the latter only partly). Our processions (at least in my parish of the Assumption of Our Lady) were a showcase of one miracle—absolutely dry sunny weather. Which prompted one parishioner to say, “Gosh, the Lord doesn’t like being wet in his parade!” But those respites were extremely short.

The rains have come back with a vengeance and, as I write, they have even enlisted the company of strong winds that blow hard and howl mockingly over roofs and windows of nipa, wooden and concrete houses alike, in an almost rare display of impartiality. But all this talk of the rains being fair to everyone is just that—talk. Actually fairness is never a virtue of Mother Nature. She merely gives back, sometimes in a greater measure, what we humans do to her. Because we have polluted our land, air and water, destroyed our forests and trapped the sun’s heat through our greenhouse gas emissions, the melting glaciers have now become hordes and hordes of attacking liquid armies that have nowhere to go but down on our homes, farms, rivers, seas and mountains. And, like uninvited rouge guests, they love creating havoc, such as mudslides and—from Brazil to Australia, from Albay to Eastern Samar, from St. Bernard to Agusan—good old-fashioned flooding. Like mini replicas of Noah’s scourge, flooding in our era distinguish neither rich nor poor, developed nor developing (a euphemism for undeveloped really) countries or communities. Who would have thought that Queensland, Australia would have worse flooding that, say, Can-avid in Eastern Samar? But then again people of Can-avid could say, “They are only worse off because people are not used to seeing richer communities suffering the fate commonly tied to poorer communities such as ours—flooding.”

Still it is not uncommon for people to adopt explanations for their fate other than from science. For instance, some people in my province say, “We have been flooded because we have a government that cares little about our welfare. Floods have made it clear how bad our roads and services have become, including how bad some of our choices for leadership positions are….” Flooding from bad governance? Undoubtedly there’s a point in that. One only has to bear in mind how bad governance in Eastern Samar or in the whole country for that matter has allowed illegal logging, mining (which has been anything but responsible in our islands), unmitigated quarrying, improper disposal of solid waste and many other offenses against the environment and Mother Nature. If love is paid by love, what do we expect Mother Nature to reward us for our irresponsibility and greed?

But all is not lost. This is what sets us apart from the cynics. It has become clearer too that people working together can make a difference. The media must be thanked for showing realities that rarely get the attention of the nation, let alone of the authorities that make far-reaching decisions and actions. Some government officials ought to be cited for seeing beyond the ravages of nature into their man-made causes and even now for trying to find long-lasting solutions, not merely temporary relief operations done ostensibly to score media mileage (or, as they say, ‘pa pogi points’). Most of all, we need to also cite the affected communities themselves that did not wait for outside help because they have decided to extend it to one another, who until now are picking up the pieces of what’s left of their homes, properties, families and lives, minding that others could be worse off than they are. I know even of some parish communities, even when they themselves suffered the ravages of flooding, that have nonetheless contributed money, clothing and food to other communities hit just as hard. In many cases it hasn’t been a matter of the comfortable aiding the afflicted but of the afflicted taking care of their fellow afflicted.

By instinct a number of people see the wisdom of Pope Boniface VIII who once said, “Anything done for another is done for oneself.” Which, I suppose is the reason why St. Vincent de Paul could exclaim: “Love is infinitely inventive.” Let’s pray and work hard that love such as this thrive in our long-suffering archipelago.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A new and happy year? Be or Stay pro-life

FR. William Baush tells of a cartoon first published in the magazine The New York World in 1925 to celebrate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. The cartoon has become a classic. In it two farmers from Kentucky are chatting over a fence. One says, “What’s new? Anything new happened lately?” The other farmer answers, “Oh, nothing much. Just a new baby born in Tom Lincoln’s place last night. There’s really nothing new around here.” Then Fr. Baush delivers the punch: “I’m sure there were folks who said the same thing in Bethlehem on the night Jesus was born. I can picture them—can’t you?—standing on the corner, just outside the inn. ‘Anything new happened around here?’ ‘No, just a baby down in the stable. Nothing much ever happens around here.’”

In other words, we tend to miss the point of Christmas or even, to a degree, New Year. Just as Americans in Lincoln’s time didn’t realize his greatness when he was born, we Christians in our time don’t realize the awesome significance of the birth of Jesus. We tend to notice the sensational and basically what pleases us. We miss the real LIGHT and LIFE wrapped in the utter simplicity and poverty of the manger and the swaddling clothes of Baby Jesus.

These first few days of 2011 we will be greeting one another, as in every circumstance years earlier, “Happy New Year!” Maybe we should ask why we have such a fetish for the new. New pieces of news, new clothes, new shoes, new ideas etc. I believe it’s basically because we are seeking the transformation that satisfies our inner desires for goodness, beauty, truth, justice, peace, all the absolutes in life. Since nothing earthly really brings us contentment, we settle for the sensational and whatever catches our attentions at the moment. Result? We miss the eternal and the lasting.

All the more reason then for us to hear the late John Paul II’s plea that we work for a transformation of our culture and society, such that lasting values start to put on flesh. “And the Word was made flesh”, so declares St. John’s gospel that we read on Christmas Day (Jn 1:14). The Eternal conjoined himself with our mortal nature. Isn’t that enough indication of the direction of true transformation? That direction must, to read the mind of John Paul II, lead us to the “Gospel of Life”, Jesus Christ himself (Evangelium Vitae, 29). The Incarnation is our clue. He must also take flesh in our daily life. Only he promises Life and fulfills it too. “I came that they may have life and have it to the full”, says he (Jn 10:10).

I believe that in re-reading Evangelium Vitae we get ample guidance on how to live the Incarnation and have newer, happier lives.

First step: Develop a “deep critical sense, capable of discerning true values and authentic needs” (EV 95). His quote from St. Paul is extremely helpful: “Walk as children of light…and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph 5:8, 10-11). Is this decision/action/object my family and I have chosen following the Gospel or pleasing mostly to my friends at the office or my political circle?

Second step: Unite your faith and your life, starting at home, in your own choices, in your own family, in your community (EV 95). I remember a lady who works for a Catholic institution and very proud of it. But she is a firm advocate of the RH Bill. People ask in whispers: “Hello, don’t you see your slip showing?” Why declare yourself Catholic Christian but deny it by what you do?

Third step: Submit to conscience formation that must include two important criteria: (a) inseparability of life and freedom; and (b) inseparability of freedom and truth (EV 96). That is to say, whatever hurts life, hurts freedom, and vice versa; whatever is not based on objective truth does not lead to true freedom. If I say that my shirt is white when it is black (objective truth), then I’m not free from having told a lie. If I say happiness means good sex and material comfort (lie) instead of union with God (objective truth), my freedom suffers from slavery to false values.

Fourth step: Submit to, and work for, an education towards respect for life from its origins, sexuality according to its objective meaning fulfilled in the gift of self to another in marriage, chastity respecting the ‘espousal meaning of the body’ as well as responsible parenthood founded on moral values (EV 97). In a word, listen to the many ways the gospel of Jesus Christ is being made flesh in our life today.

Fifth step: Promote a “new lifestyle” following the primacy of being over having, of the person over things (EV 98). Am I or is my family/community more concerned with being good human beings and Christians rather having more money, earning, profits, possessions? Am I or is my family/community more into improving relationships among ourselves and with other people rather than into achieving the best financial status or the most number of projects?

Sixth step: Reconcile people with life and give witness to the true meaning of love in self-giving and in the joyful acceptance of others (EV 99), Do I see other human beings, even babies, as threats to my space and my share of the earth’s goods? Or do I feel a genuine sense of brotherhood with them because of my faith in Jesus Christ who dwells in every human being and to whom I owe the gift of myself no less?

Again let me illustrate a bit. A boy of ten went caroling with friends one December night in a far barangay. When he came home, he didn’t have as much money or goodies as other kids of other groups. But he was surprisingly happy. His mother asked him why he seemed happier. He said, “Because we gave more tonight than we received, Nanay. Most of the houses we went to said, ‘Utang la anay’ [Waray for ‘Patawad’ (We owe you)…” He realized he was giving when he sang carols receiving nothing in return.

Who says it’s impossible to understand the true meaning of Christmas and Happy New Year?