Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Challenge to Yolanda survivors one year after: the courage to hope

IN Catholic teaching courage or fortitude and hope are two virtues in different categories. [To the uninitiated let me put it this way: Virtue is any act or disposition to the good. In a sense we show or attain goodness in no other way than by practicing virtues.] Courage is a moral (i.e., acquired through human effort in view of a good life) cardinal (plays a crucial or pivotal role) virtue which enables the human person to deal with difficulties, trials and sacrifices as he pursues the good. On the other hand, hope is a theological (i.e. infused or gifted by God into the human person) virtue and is further so-called because it disposes him or her to a direct relationship with God, One and Triune (the Blessed Trinity, that is).
In particular, hope enables anyone to desire as his or her happiness the Kingdom of heaven or eternal life, something we pray for on behalf of the deceased victims of Yolanda. As for the living victims of the super typhoon, hope enables them to not give in to discouragement in the face of continuing deprivations and tremendous suffering they go through even to this day, and to see in whatever consolation or experience of happiness life affords them the bridge to the Kingdom and eternal bliss.
In a word, I have just opened up what might be to some a ho-hum subject. Isn’t that one of the supreme ironies of life? What some consider ho-hum may actually be sine-qua-non (or something we can’t live without). For, what reasonable human being can make do without the virtues and be, at the same time, still reasonable and human?
Of course, even for the living victims of Yolanda the kingdom of God and eternal life, which is one and the same, forms hope’s ultimate goal, however un-reflected or unsaid. Realistically, though, they still have to face the daily tasks of surviving. Which means that for the here and now, hope’s objective is more immediate and mundane: a decent life, a fuller recovery in the sense of being more responsive to human dignity.
I submit that we, victims of Yolanda, must have the courage to hope for the following things. (It goes without saying that both prayer and action are indispensable components of this program.)
One, the grace to continually desire, plead and pledge to work for integral recovery: physical, psychological, spiritual, economic, political, social and cultural. We do not recover when we continue to live in tents or sub-human shelters. Nor do we recover when are being made pawns of political rivalries and infightings. Neither do we recover when we are forced by our traumatic post-calamity impoverishment to sell our bodies or deeply cherished values to gambling, human trafficking or prostitution. Nor do we recover when a foreign belief, practice or culture or set of values is imposed upon us as a condition for receiving aid (i.e., contraception or continuing want? be born-again or be bum again?
Two, the grace to dream big, to be content only with the maximum and not to settle for the minimum. For what is the use of life for a bird if it cannot fly? What is the meaning of help or aid when it does not lead the victims to the realization of their dignity? Let me speak mostly but not exclusively for Eastern Samar about how Yolanda destroyed not only our landscape but also the capacity to dream big. Several weeks and months after the devastation priests made a disturbing observation that in calamity-ridden areas, that is, in some towns at the center and mainly in the south, the surfeit in relief goods led to a rise in gambling and indisposition to manual labor.
Presently the local bishop and clergy have their hands full when it comes to reminding Yolanda victims of their obligation to stand on their own feet: that is, to go back to planting wherever possible, to fishing with a better motivation, including better fishing nets from kindly donors, to be equipped with more and (again) better income-generating livelihood programs (here we must acknowledge and thank the invaluable assistance of local and foreign groups, NGOs as well as LGUs but also remind them that quantity and quality must inseparably be present in these programs). There was one egregious example of how foreign presence made local politicians look bad for being content with the minimum. While local politicians sponsored substandard bunkers, foreign aid groups decried their failure to pass international standards. It was sad that it took foreigners to wake our leaders and people up to dreaming big for ourselves. Or is serving the human dignity of our people too big?
Three, the GRACE TO NOT UNLEARN the lessons of Yolanda. For PAG-ASA and other pertinent government agencies, their zeal to inform and educate the people on the many different facets of the natural calamities we face time and again should also be paired with more culturally friendly and understandable methods and language. The curse of the phrase “storm surge” is now deeply ingrained in our people’s collective consciousness. But our government agencies should not scoff at a deadly mistake they had made. To them our word is: Simplify your methods and language in the matter of informing or educating our people regarding disasters or such other matters that involve life and limb. The greater charge, however, lies with continually reminding our people, our short memories being the constant blight in our horizons, that knowing and obeying instructions and warnings from right sources could mean the difference between life or death.
Four, the grace of experiencing community.
Disasters by nature breed isolation and a sense of alienation from other people and nature, especially when they also result in deaths within families. It is remarkable, for example, how after Yolanda, victims walked like zombies looking for other members of their families, extensions of themselves. Or how victims stole from one another or from department stores and malls with little regard for shame or manners. And yet in places where there was a sense of community victims even helped other victims and recognized their common plight as an invitation not only to struggle for self- or family-survival but also for common survival and recovery. Wherever priests exercised pastoral leadership, it became also clear how victims were able to go beyond their own tragic situations to share goods with and care for other victims.
Finally, the grace of a deeper spirituality. To say that every disaster, including Super Typhoon Yolanda, is a test, a trial is a cliché. But that is no less true than saying that every disaster spells tragedy. Disaster becomes tragedy when we do not do well in our response to it as a test. As Catholic Christians, we have an immense spiritual heritage at our disposal, the saint after whom our Filipino Everyman is named, John of the Cross (Juan de la Cruz), being our foremost mentor. Pardon me, but I think Yolanda was a physical manifestation of what San Juan de la Cruz calls “the dark night of the soul”. And the noteworthy thing is that our own poor, the very people who are often the subject of pity and compassion from outsiders and watchers, ourselves included, are not only open to the message of the Crucified Christ but are also its principal teachers. That is, if we care to listen and humbly give them the podium for a change. I remember asking a seventy-something lady at their tent kitchen in Hernani, Eastern Samar, if she was not angry with God that she lost relatives and neighbors who were dragged by Yolanda’s storm surges to death. She said to me, “Oh no, Father. I believe the Lord loves them so much that he called them home to be with him and he loves us in a different way. He let us live so we could go on telling others of his love.” Or words to that effect. What spirituality could be deeper than that?

To me she is a mentor of courage and hope.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Christ-centered Papal Visit per pavore, por favor, please!

MY sympathies lie with those who have taken the initiative in trying to shore up enthusiasm for the long-announced-and-much-anticipated coming of Pope Francis to the Philippines. They understand the power of images. The media hype over the life-size cardboard replicas of the Holy Father and such other paraphernalia says a lot about the excitement that has already been stirred up at least among Catholics and admirers of Pope Francis.  Everything looks neat.
            Except for one thing.
            And this one thing is too crucial to ignore: Are these efforts not missing the real and essential significance of the Holy Father’s visit, which is to proclaim Jesus Christ and not himself, in our midst and wherever he goes? Would Pope Francis be happy with a huge personality cult around him in the Philippines instead of the continued growth of faith in Jesus Christ, unwavering hope and both being expressed by love that does justice and compassion among Filipinos? If the Holy Father himself is centered on Jesus the Master, should we not be?
            I know I need not belabor this point.
            Being a Super Typhoon Yolanda survivor myself, I share in the joy of her victims in both Samar and Leyte as well as in other Central and Western Visayas provinces, who are anticipating a holy person’s visit. But it is a joy that comes from him whose presence the Holy Father brings and proclaims. The thought of that presence of him who caused the infant John the Baptist to “leap for joy” (Lk 1:44) somehow has inspired me to make an ‘unsolicited suggestion’ to those who are distributing the Holy Father’s cardboard replicas.
            I am not in the habit of making direct suggestions. But this time I am taking exception to that. Please allow me to do it indirectly.
            Just days after Yolanda I witnessed unforgettable traces of an incredibly horrific devastation in Brgy Carmen, Hernani, Eastern Samar. The residents’ huts and their barangay chapel were either blown away or torn down into skeletal remains by mammoth waves and killer winds. All that was left of the chapel were parts of its walls and a roofless ceiling framework. The altar was nowhere in sight. But in its place the residents gathered images of the Sto. Nio, Mama Mary and the saints on top of a long table or the remnants of their altar niche.
            Then out of the blue our group saw a figure of a young man slowly walking his way to the altar. He had the huge crucifix of the chapel and he was carrying it on his shoulder the way Jesus is usually portrayed when he carries his cross. He wanted to put it where it belongs: at the center of the bare chapel altar. How, neither my companions nor I could tell. One of us, though, was a professional photographer, and he captured the scene in one gripping moment.
            That young man’s figure reminds me of the Holy Father, Pope Francis, and what he has been doing for the Church and for the world. He has been busy proclaiming to us the Crucified Jesus and bearing him on his shoulder so as to restore him at the center of our hearts and the heart of every human being by his humility and compassion, the humility of Jesus Christ who “emptied himself and took the form of a slave” (Phil 2:7), the compassion of Jesus who “dined with sinners and outcasts” (Mt 9:10-11).
            Why not a replica that truly captures who the Holy Father is and what his ministry really means?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

"Taking a change": A letter to the Holy Father on his forthcoming Philippine visit

DEAR Holy Father,
            I wanted to begin with a formal greeting. But, remembering how simple and spontaneous you are in many of your public appearances, I decided against it.
            Instead, I would like to begin with something light (please let me digress from the many serious matters that these days must weigh heavily on your mind and heart, such as the ongoing persecution of Christians not only by atheistic secularists and materialists but also by religious terrorists etc.). Holy Father, it is really very good you are coming to the Philippines. Now I’d be able to see for myself if you really look like Jonathan Pryce or Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ. On the other hand, once you get to reach Palo, Leyte and other calamity areas you will also see for yourself there is no truth to the rumor that we ordered Super Typhoon Haiyan, locally known as Yolanda, from First World countries’ Climate Change bodies to hasten your coming.
            When Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, told the story of how, after your election to the Chair of Peter, you first addressed (in jest, of course) the Cardinal-electors with “May God forgive you [for electing me]”, you must have been an instant hit to Filipino believers. You were to me. It felt so refreshing to know that the Holy Father not only has an un-self-conscious humility and simplicity but also a sense of humor. For this is what we Filipinos have aplenty, aside from poverty and natural as well as man-made (mostly by us Filipinos ourselves) calamities. Speaking as a Super Typhoon Yolanda victim, I realize how our Pinoy humor has helped us laugh through the horrors of devastation and death with the ever-present reminders of how passing this grotesque world can be compared to how everlasting God’s love is.
            I join many Filipinos who even now thank you for accepting our people’s invitation through our religious and political leaders to come and visit us. I also join the Catholic faithful in our diocese, the Diocese of Borongan, in expressing a tinge of sadness and disappointment that your visit will not include any of our own calamity-stricken areas, no matter how equally hard-hit they were. Still, we prefer to understand and expand our minds and hearts to our other brothers and sisters you will be spending time and space with. We know you also visit us in them.
            Please allow me to be a bit personal. In the early morning hours of November 8, 2013 when Super Typhoon Yolanda winds, described by one of our priests here as “howling like a beast in the wilderness”, seemed to me like a dozen crashing trains whenever they lashed against our parish rectory, sending debris and water through the window jalousies in my room, I was half-scared I could die. But, continuing to pray both loudly and in whispers, I realized I was more scared of finding our parish church and our then newly-built shrine for the Black Nazarene razed to the ground in the aftermath. The reason why I am writing about this, Holy Father, is that despite the many distressing things about Yolanda and our country’s realities, there is also good news that tempers the bad. Not only did our church and shrine survive Yolanda. So does the faith of our people and our sense of community. There’s also good news in prayers being answered and the miracle of God’s protection being felt as real as a Super Typhoon’s devastation. I hope knowing this would lighten somehow the burden of your seeing traces of Yolanda and our other calamities in the country as well as hearing the voices of their suffering victims.
            We know your visit is the face of Holy Mother Church’s compassion as much as it is yours. I also wish it teaches our people, especially our leaders who are embroiled in seemingly perpetual mutually assured recriminations, to try compassion with one another’s human frailties for once. It is not that we should take wrongdoings lightly; it is rather that we should take charity more strongly as the mark of the really “matuwid” or righteous.
            Millions are waiting for you, Holy Father. Even now I can see in mind’s eye a record-breaking number of throngs longing to get a glimpse of you, for our people not only see the significance of your own person in relation to whose Vicar you are but also sense his sacred presence in you as we did in St. John Paul II, the last successor to St. Peter to have walked our shores. Please help us not to forget so easily the blessings and responsibilities that come with being called into his company, especially long after you are gone.
            For we are a people known for having short memories. We easily forget the wrongs committed in our history, except those of our enemies—personal, political etc. Worse, we forget equally easily the right things as well. We so easily forget Jesus Christ when we make decisions and act on them in our families, politics (here in a particularly glaring fashion), culture (here sadly unacknowledged mostly), entertainment (Jesus Christ—who he?), quest for inclusive economic growth (pursued more out of international pressure than out of justice) that even seconds after we leave behind our beautiful church liturgies there is little trace of our Christian faith in what we say or do. Please help us, especially our church leaders, find better ways to make our people bridge our worship and our lives. For that is where the hope of our nation lies, not to say our local church’s best chance to fulfill our share in the challenge of the New Evangelization.
            Please forgive me, Holy Father, for writing a long letter.
            Please forgive me for even entertaining the thought of you having time to read it.
            But I will not apologize for taking this chance, believing like the woman with a hemorrhage in Mt 9:20-21 that “if I could only touch the tassel” of the Vicar of Christ’s cloak, healing from the Lord might overflow into our deeply wounded islands.
                                                                        With profound love and respect,

                                                                        Fr. E. B. Belizar, Jr.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Responding to political and other mischiefs

LAST Dec. 2013 I received a call from my bishop requesting me to represent him in a Department of Education event launching the ALS or Alternative Learning School among the children and adults at the Brgy Camada Dumpsite. Apparently the bishop thought that since the area still belongs to the Parish of the Assumption of Our Lady, my current assignment, I was the right person to represent him. I said yes at once. But I realized later that it was in conflict with another scheduled Mass and school blessing in another barangay. I told the bishop about the circumstances but, wanting to still keep my yes, said that if the event started on time I could still represent him, but if the guests arrived late, then I would have to leave for my other acts. “That is okay, Father,” he assured me, “as long as you came to express my support to the program. If you are forced to leave because of your other acts, it would not be your fault anymore.” I checked the time. The event was scheduled at 9 AM. I had a Mass and blessing at 10 AM. It was 9:41 AM but there were no signs yet of the “distinguished guests” (read: “powerful people”). So when I decided to leave, the event organizer said he understood why I had to. But I was at peace and I remembered thinking, “If I did not come, it would have bothered me.”
            My obedience to the bishop, to me, was a right response not only because he is the leader in our local Church, but also because, all things considered, he had to attend to more important matters. Now it occurs to me that if we render obedience to the bishop or our bosses at work, should it be any less with God? I think our problem is that often while we could easily obey human authorities, we do not hesitate to disobey God. And I am not even thinking simply of the relatively easy passage of the RH Law (when PDAF and DAP easily changed many legislators’ convictions) or even the deliberate abuses of human rights, the unabated extra-judicial killings or the continued non-realization of justice, peace and authentic land reform in our islands etc.
            The president once said that the people are his “bosses”. The trouble with this belief system is when the “bosses” are hardly listened to or when they are not listened to because they have a contrary idea or opinion. Or when those who have a contrary idea or opinion are labeled “enemies” of the people’s true welfare.
            Worse trouble than all the above is when this line of thought forgets that there is a Supreme Boss whom the president and his “bosses” must first obey. And this trouble begets another trouble when the Supreme Boss is ignored just because he has no vote to court in the elections.
            This worse trouble leads to the greatest one: When we continually ignore—which is practically the same thing as disobey—the Supreme boss, political, economic and socio-cultural “mischiefs” are so easily committed, especially beyond the prying eyes of the cameras or media outlets.
            The August 28, 2014 editorial of the New York Times considers as “political mischief” the sum total of current attempts to elicit support for another charter change in order to extend the president’s and other elected political leaders’ terms as well as clip the Supreme Court’s powers to check “judicial overreach”. Such attempts, observes the Times, are a threat to Philippine democracy. The editorial then appeals to the president to the effect that since his parents were heroes and icons of democracy, he should desist from such efforts aimed at perpetuating himself in power or at reviving the long-rejected dictator’s habit of controlling or bending the judiciary to the Chief Executive’s will. It is unfortunate that the New York Times’ unsolicited advice was dismissed, as it could easily be dismissed for, among other things, not coming from the “bosses” (i.e., the people who has the leader’s ears).
            This reminds me of Isaiah 7:10-14 when King Ahaz of Israel is told by the prophet Isaiah to ask God for a sign, which he refused, apparently because he thought that what God wanted to do might not suit his interests. Yet Isaiah still gives the sign: the imminent birth of a child through a virgin and he is to be named “Immanuel”, which means “God is with us”. I think this is the beauty of God’s love; human beings may refuse to obey him, but his saving plan will still get through by other ways and means. A warning to our leaders is implicit here.
            The document Filipino Catholic Laity: Called to be Saints…Sent Forth as Heroes  challenges Filipino Catholic lay men and women to focus on two areas of our national life that are basically a consequence of our disobedience to God’s will.
            First, our poverty. The document describes the massive character of destitution in the country, the continuing flight to foreign shores by many Filipinos which brings both good (material wealth for their families) and evil effects (family separations, “servitude” and “humiliation” in foreign countries, etc.). Then it states: “This endemic poverty is gravely contrary to the will of God” (FCL 3). The response? “You our dear lay faithful are in the best position to creatively work out solutions which will satisfy the demands of justice and charity. What are you doing to create wealth, preserve wealth and share wealth?” (FCL 3).
            Second, our politics. The problem with our politics is that it is “the problem”.  This is because “as it is practiced in our country [it] is perhaps the single biggest obstacle to our integral development as a nation [as it is]…riddled with graft and corruption” (FCL, ibid.). The response? “It is now clear that our people are poor because our leaders have kept them poor by their greed for money and power. What are you doing to help get worthy people to positions of authority and power? What are you doing to get rid of the politics of patronage, violence and uneducated choices? ” (FCL, ibid.). I would even add: What are you doing to check the abuse of and greed for power and, instead, promote it as a means to truly serve society unselfishly?
            All these questions are summed up in this: Are you, the laity, listening to and obeying the Lord’s call to establish on our islands and the whole world “his eternal and universal kingdom, a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace” [Preface on Christ the King Sunday]?
            In his letter to the Romans Paul brings to our awareness the right response to the Messiah called Jesus Christ whom we profess to follow. “Through him we have received the grace of apostleship, to bring about the obedience in faith, for the sake of his name among all the Gentiles…” (Rom 1:6-7).
            The president and we, his “bosses”, could act like Ahaz who disobeyed the Lord and reaped the whirlwinds. Or like Joseph and Mary who, in their obedience, were instrumental to the dawning of our and mankind’s salvation.
            To pick the right choice St. John XXIII gave us the clue written in his coat of arms: “Oboedientia et pax.”

            My translation (I know full well how difficult the act can be): “Obedience [to the Lord] begets peace.”

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Mary, light of our home, church (Musings on the feast of the Assumption)

WE have a saying: “Ang ina ay ang ilaw ng tahahan (“Mother is the light of the home”). To this I once heard a friend quip: “Kung ang ina ang ilaw ng tahanan, ano naman ang ama? (If the mother is the light of the home, what is the father?)” He answered his own question: “Kung mabuti sya’ng ama, s’ya ang kandila; kung hindi sya mabuting ama, sya ang -----co! (If he was a good father, he would be the candle; if not, he would be -----co!)”
I have a sense that very few among Pinoy Catholics will contest the proposition regarding Mary being the light of our home, the Church. If we, on the one hand, believe, as we say we do, that Mary is our Mother as Jesus told us so from the cross (Jn 19:27: “There is your mother”), then Mary in our Filipino Christian culture, on the other, is the “Light of our Home, the Church”. We say so for a big reason. Mama Mary is resplendent with the light of faith. That is the Mama Mary that we see being presented in her Assumption. Revelation’s reference to the “woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and her head a crown of twelve stars”  (Rev. 12:1), as Bible experts tell us, can give us a variety of meanings. She could refer to the People of God in the OT founded on the twelve tribes, a people who gave birth to the Messiah; second, she could also be the New People of God founded on the twelve apostles, the Church; third, she could be Mary who represents the best of OT Israel and NT New Israel, the Church. She herself gave birth to Jesus, the Messiah, whose Body we are all members of. In a word, by virtue of our being members of Christ Jesus her Son, Mary is our Mother.
            It is in this context that we can say Mary is, by extension, the Light of our Home, the Church (understood here as the locus of the Father’s Family) through her faith. The gospel of Luke especially is our witness to how that faith truly gives light to us. First, it is her faith that shows us that listening is an essential component of our life as children of the Father. She is portrayed unambiguously as reflecting on the Word of the Lord and the events of her and her Son’s life through which God also speaks to her (Lk 2:19, 51). Second, she follows up her listening with doing, as when she obeys God’s plan for her to be the Mother of God’s Son. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me as you say” (Lk 1:39). Her obedience casts an enlightening ray on our struggles to find the path to God. Third, even Elizabeth extols her for “trusting that the Lord’s words to her will be fulfilled” (Lk 1:45). It is a faith manifested in trust. The art of trust, however difficult at times, is necessary in our primary relationships, with God as foremost. The leap of Mary’s trust in God teaches us that faith, admittedly a risk, is one always worth taking. Fourth, her faith is also shown by her loving service, as when she visits Elizabeth during her time of need, as she is about to give birth. The light of faith, Mary shows, may meander but it leads to charity.
On top of all these, faith such as that we glimpse in Mary provides light to society in various ways. On this Pope Francis is our foremost authority. One, faith, teaches the pope, gives a firm grounding to the brotherhood of man by referring it to God as our one and common Father (Lumen Fidei, no. 54). Two, faith brings human beings an understanding of “the unique dignity of each person, something which was not clearly seen in antiquity”, as the case of the pagan Celsus reproaching Christians for considering man greater than grass and brute beasts (ibid.). Three, faith reveals to us “the love of God the Creator” and thus “enables us to respect nature all the more, and to discern in it a grammar written by the hand of God and dwelling place entrusted to our protection and care” (LF 55). Four, “faith also helps us to devise models of development which are based not simply on utility and profit, but consider creation as a gift for which we are all indebted” (ibid.). Five, “it teaches us to create just forms of government, in the realization that authority comes from God and is meant for the service of the common good” (ibid.). Six, “faith likewise offers the possibility of forgiveness” especially "once we discover that goodness is always prior to and more powerful than evil, and that the word with which God affirms our life is deeper than our every denial” (ibid.).
            Let’s examine Mama Mary in relation to the ways faith can be light to society. The grounding of the brotherhood of human beings on God as our Father was made possible because Mama Mary consented to being the Mother of God’s Son in whom we are God’s children. Our unique dignity as human persons precisely comes from sharing in the sonship of Jesus Christ, something that would not have been possible if he did not assume our human nature through Mama Mary. The revelation of God as Creator finds its unique form when the uncreated Son of God took on a creature’s nature through a human mother named Mary. Mama Mary’s making herself available for service to her cousin Elizabeth and even to a newly wed couple in Cana certainly speaks for her faith’s concrete manifestation seeking other persons’ welfare not based “on utility and profit” but on love. Mama Mary’s Magnificat speaks of unjust rulers being deposed by the Almighty God through his own mysterious ways positively speaks of God’s desire for “just forms of government”. Finally, does Mama Mary stand for forgiveness? By implication. She stood by Jesus to the bitter end, even when he prayed to the Father, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). Moreover, she still remained with Peter and the other apostles even when they abandoned her Son on the way to his crucifixion.
            If Mama Mary’s faith lives in us and in our society, society will be transformed from inside out.

CL, ibid.). The response? “It is now clear that our people are poor because our leaders have kept them poor by their greed for money and power. What are you doing to help get worthy people to positions of authority and power? What are you doing to get rid of the politics of patronage, violence and uneducated choices? ” (FCL, ibid.). I would even add: What are you doing to check the abuse of and greed for power and, instead, promote it as a means to truly serve society unselfishly?

            All these questions are summed up in this: Are you, the laity, listening to and obeying the Lord’s call to establish on our islands and the whole world “his eternal and universal kingdom, a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace” [Preface on Christ the King Sunday]?
            In his letter to the Romans Paul brings to our awareness the right response to the Messiah called Jesus Christ whom we profess to follow. “Through him we have received the grace of apostleship, to bring about the obedience in faith, for the sake of his name among all the Gentiles…” (Rom 1:6-7).
            The president and we, his “bosses”, could act like Ahaz who disobeyed the Lord and reaped the whirlwinds. Or like Joseph and Mary who, in their obedience, were instrumental to the dawning of our and mankind’s salvation.
            To pick the right choice St. John XXIII gave us the clue written in his coat of arms: “Oboedientia et pax.”

            My translation (I know full well how difficult the act can be): “Obedience [to the Lord] begets peace.”

Friday, July 25, 2014

Of arrogance and humility

“EVERYBODY loves a winner,” so goes the saying. But so does everybody love humility (especially a humble winner, I might add). There are two unfortunate things before us. One, we have a president who was a clear winner but who is not clearly known for humility. Two, a caveat: Humility is a virtue so easy to remember when it is absent in another person. In its place just as easily we spot pride or arrogance. But when humility is absent in ourselves, it is so easy to forget the idea or (with apologies to a song) let it go. Then we call it conviction, courage or determination (when obstinacy or inflexibility would be more in point).
If we turn to the critics of the president, especially after his strong and unyielding defense of the DAP (Disbursement Acceleration Program) or the controversial members of his cabinet, we are likely to hear them accuse him of arrogance or hard-headedness. When we listen to the president or his aides, we hear another story: his firm determination to bring the benefits of government services to as many people as possible. We in Eastern Samar are perennially asking the question: Where have all these services and benefits gone? There is very little evidence of them in the barangays.
When the budget secretary submitted his letter of resignation to own up to the DAP debacle, the president refused to accept it, saying that he does not subscribe “to the notion that doing right by our people is a wrong.” I thought it wasn’t so hard to see that doing right by our people by no means justifies the use of unconstitutional (that is, illegal) means. I also wondered what right or wrong actually means to the chief executive or whether or not he also hears, being a Catholic that he once said he is, advice from the Church’s moral leaders (not to say moral theologians too). I suppose he does; it is another story, of course, if the advice is heeded. There are accusations that his administration used the DAP to pass the Reproductive Health Law, to oust the former Supreme Court Chief Justice Corona etc. If the accusations are true, it makes me wonder even more if he thought in terms of right or wrong in the use of money to court legislators’ and politicians’ votes or support.
To paraphrase St. Augustine, one of our greatest sins is that we prefer to ignore our wrongs and focus on those of another. This is one necessary food for thought that both friends and critics of this administration or of any other person  or group should bear in mind. As long as we are prepared to apply on ourselves the same standards that we assign our critics or enemies, then we are safe from arrogance. Being so positioned is less than a fifteen-minute walk to humility.
In the Catholic mindset humility is an integral part of temperance, the virtue that watches over our appetites such that they do not hinder us from living according to our dignity as God’s children. Humility, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches us, comes from “humus” which means earth or soil. We should not lose sight of how the lowliness of the earth and the soil mirrors the lowly attitude of the humble; it also reminds us of where we came from and where we are going back to. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” is first cousin to the Pauline exhortation: “Let what you see in Christ be seen in you…Though he was in the form of God, he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at; rather he emptied himself and took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men…he humbled himself” (Phil 2:5-6, 8).
When we are tempted to make gods of ourselves, humility brings up the truth that everything we are and have is grace, gifted on us by the real and true God. Naturally he uses people and circumstances when he does. On this count alone pride is incompatible with discipleship. On this count alone it is perfectly understandable why, inside and outside of the Scriptures, God reveals himself and his plans only to the humble. For how can the true God cultivate a fellowship with someone who considers himself another god? Does not, in fact, the Mother of Jesus say that the Almighty “has looked with favor on his lowly servant, and from this day forward all generations will call me blessed” (Lk 2:48)? And does not the Savior confirm this when he says: “He who exalts himself will be humbled; he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 14:11)?
It may be humbling for a leader to accept a mistake. But that is the least of his worries. Not doing so out of pride and arrogance is a greater mistake.
You could say it is a bit unfortunate that we can no longer ask, at least in this life, the likes of Cain, Nebuchadnezzar, Hitler etc. or Lucifer himself about the role of pride in their personal histories. But their footprints are still visible today, and they lead nowhere except towards self-destruction.

Which is why a believer, let alone a leader, needs to heed the advice of Micah the prophet to Israel and its leadership: “You have been told, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: to do justice, to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Consequences of dishonesty

THE screaming headlines have it daily. The drama or circus (depending on whose side the onlooker takes) surrounding the detention of celebrity or non-celebrity PDAF scammers continues to take the country by storm. Some protest the special treatment they receive; others cry instead for the improvement of conditions in jails to level up to human dignity; still others simply shrug their shoulders, saying, “Serves them right for stealing us blind.”
            To me all this simply raises the question of the consequences of dishonest living. Even the Scriptures speak of them.
            1. For instance, the NT speaks of the wounding (or severance?) of communion. Tying honesty with the life of communion in the Body of Christ, Paul urges truthfulness among Christians, with communion as motivation: “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Eph 4:25). While we should refrain from reading in the text what isn’t there, this exhortation’s interesting implication is unavoidable: that a disciple’s dishonesty wounds our life of communion in the Body of Christ somewhat like a lying child’s wounding of family unity, hence that child’s earning ostracism from other family members. Let’s put it this way. Being “members of one another” or being in the communion of the Body of Christ, according to Paul, should motivate us to be honest with one another; it follows that a dishonest act, especially one involving millions or even billions of pesos, seriously violates this communion, either wounding it or causing the dishonest person to separate himself from this fraternal fellowship.
            2. There is also the scandal of discovery. In direct language, obviously intended to warn its audience, the book of Proverbs contrasts the consequences of honest behavior and its opposite: “Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but he who makes his ways crooked will be found out” (Prov 10:9). For reasons relevant to the Philippines, this ageless observation appears to have anticipated the present scandal that has been generated by the Commission On Audit’s unearthing of a cancer. That is, several lawmakers, both from the Senate and  from the House of Representatives, had for many years embroiled themselves in the illegal transfer of public money into fake Non-Government Organizations or aggrupations. With the power of print and social media as well as that of television exposing whatever dishonest dealings or transactions in and out of government and disseminating the information with the speed unknown or unheard only a few years ago, the impact of any dishonesty-related scandal could be devastating and lasting.
            3. Rottenness comes from rottenness as corruption is reaped from corruption. Again we considerer Paul. He categorizes dishonesty among the expressions of our unredeemed nature or of our human nature outside the influence of, or in a state of rebellion to, the Holy Spirit. This he terms “flesh”. Says he: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that he will also reap. For the one who sows for the benefit of his flesh will reap corruption and death from the flesh, but the one who sows in the spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal 6:7-8). It is not too difficult to link dishonesty to the flesh as understood in Pauline theology. For a person who does not submit to the influence and guidance of the Spirit or who ignores the Spirit’s guiding light will more readily give in to dishonesty and wrongdoing. And neither is it difficult to see two more upshots. One, the accumulation of wealth and power comes with the intended beneficiaries being deprived of services and essential benefits due them. Two, dishonesty also comes with habitual flight from responsibility and ultimately corrupts or even damages the dishonest person’s character and life. Of course, this is just the icing of the bitter cake. The real death Paul speaks of is the essence of sin itself which is separation from God, the very anti-thesis of God’s program of eternal life.
            4. The dishonest do a disservice to God’s name. This may be an understatement of Paul’s denunciation of fellow Jews. He takes them to task because, though well-versed in the Law of Moses, they conduct themselves in various shades of rebellion against it. His words apply equally to Christians who live dishonest lives: “While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the Law dishonor God by breaking the Law. For as it is written, ‘The name of God is despised among the Gentiles because of you’” (Rom 2:21-24). We are all extra sensitive when our family’s name is dragged into some scandal. We forget the truth of faith that we all bear our heavenly Father’s name in virtue or in vice: in virtue we give it glory; in dishonesty we disgrace it.
            5. Finally, there is the believer’s greatest agony: being barred from true riches. Jesus himself sees the link between dishonesty and being excluded from true wealth of God’s Kingdom. In the context of the parable of the crafty steward he draws lessons relevant to the question of honesty: “He who can be trusted in little things can be trusted in great ones; he who is dishonest in slight matters will also be dishonest in greater ones. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling questionable money, who could entrust you with true wealth? And if you have not been trustworthy in that which is another’s, who will give you the wealth which is your own?” (Lk 16:10-12). The unmistakable message is simple: A disciple who engages in dishonest dealings on earthly or temporal wealth also proves himself untrustworthy of heavenly treasures. No tragedy could be greater or worse.
            Sometimes we recoil at Scriptural language as too harsh or too crude for our modern ears.

But there is another side of the coin: why should we sugarcoat the harsh reality of dishonesty?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Honesty in Scriptures

IT is like a wild boar let loose on the streets of national consciousness. The raging pork barrel controversy involving, as of now, several lawmakers (three senators, a number of congressmen) and their aides, a businesswoman, private citizens and other government officials continues to rile, bewilder, shock and distress many. Public interest rises especially as more evidence is presented on the extent and amount of public money adjudged to have been stolen. The drama surrounding the issuance of arrest warrants, actual and imminent surrenders of the accused, and the media coverage of the story’s every detail only heighten it. All this should not distract us from the core issue. The travesty of honesty in government seems, at times, beyond belief. In addition, from all indications, we have yet to see the matter beyond the tip of the iceberg. Now since the Philippines claims to be a Christian country (if the majority of its citizens were to be the criterion of judgment), people who regard the Bible as their guiding light in life, aside from Apostolic Tradition and magisterial teaching (for Catholics), need to bear in mind what the Scriptures say on honesty apart from the simple ordinary common sense it is associated with.
So we ask: What does the Scriptures say about honesty?
The PMA honor code motto is a good place to start in our consideration of honesty in the Scriptures: “I will not lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate others who do so” [my wording]. Even Webster’s New World College Dictionary affirms this as a working definition of honesty.
            It is by no means easy to say that Scriptures have a specific and clear-cut definition of honesty. On the other hand, there are several verses and passages from both the OT and the NT that, on various contexts and circumstances, address aspects of our working definition and even go beyond it.
General Meaning Covering the Model Christian Conduct. St. Paul, for example, gives us a comprehensive exhortation that covers honesty as we understand it but also includes aspects of the model Christian life linked to honesty: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Eph 4:8-9).
Focus on the Mouth: Truthful Words. The Scriptures put premium in the quality of words from a person’s mouth as a vehicle of truth not falsehood. Put negatively, dishonesty in words is frowned upon and is opposed to faithfulness which is lauded. “Lying lips,” the book of Proverbs states, “are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight” (Prov 12:22). This point is also reaffirmed elsewhere in the same book: “Better is a poor person who walks in his integrity than one who is crooked in speech and is a fool” (Prov 19:1). Also among the seven things abominable to the Lord is “a lying tongue” aside from “haughty eyes,…hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers” (Prov 6:16-20).
From a Christian perspective St. Paul characterizes lying as incompatible with the new life in Christ a Christian puts on: “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices” (Col 3:9). This is one occasion, among others, on which St. Peter agrees: “Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit” (1 Pt 3:10-11). The most emphatic declaration comes from the Lord himself and his words cement the focus on honesty in words that should characterize his disciple: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ when you mean yes or ‘No’ when you mean no; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Mt 5:37). It is because of this that St. James, another pillar of the Christian life, sees a lying tongue as a denial of the true religion or faith in Jesus Christ: “If anyone thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, that person’s religion is worthless” (Jas 1:26).
Focus on the Deed: Righteous Behavior. The letter to the Hebrews recognizes that honesty in one’s acts does not simply require a person’s will but also the help of God’s grace. Consequently its writer makes an urgent request: “Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things” (Heb 13:18). This prompts me to ask: How much do we pray for honesty in ourselves and in our leaders? In Luke Jesus uses as criterion for honesty in one’s behavior the good one wishes for himself from others: “And as you wish that others do to you, do so to them” (Lk 6:31). In Matthew he sees this as the full expression of the teachings of Moses and the prophets: “So whatever you wish others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Mt 7:12). St. Paul expands on the Lord’s teaching to include not repaying evil for evil and steering clear of a vengeful spirit: “Repay no evil for evil, but give thought to what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:17-21).
This is certainly an interesting point because obviously those of us who are victims of dishonesty in government many times desire to get even. In fact, there are vigilantes who actually punish and even kill dishonest criminals. That response, though admittedly human, suffers from the same evil nature of any dishonest act that we abhor. In a word, the Christian faith does not tolerate evil both as an end and as a means. Let’s take, for instance, those who work or engage in business to earn a living. Earning a living is a good objective in life but it should not admit of evil ways or means. So says the book of Proverbs (again): “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord; but a just weight is his delight” (Prov 11:1). The book of Leviticus states it positively: “You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measures of length or weight or quantity” (Lev 19:35).

What is the point of our long discourse? As far as Philippine (and world) society is concerned, honesty is vital as it is an aide to justice. Justice, according to Pope Benedict VI in Deus Caritas Est, is what runs society’s political life. In the words of St. Augustine in The City of God, “there is no right where there is no justice”.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The unacknowledged malaise: the sin of accumulating excessive wealth

REMEMBER the ‘new seven deadly sins’? In 2008 the relatively unknown Vatican body in charge of matters relating to Penance and Indulgences, the Apostolic Penitentiary, through its then head, Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, issued a document that made the world sit up and take notice of what it called “new expressions of sin” accompanying the phenomenon of globalization. Little have Filipinos known, even up until now, that the roots of the pork barrel scam had already been exposed by a simple declaration. But were we paying any attention? Of course, we could always dispute who determines ‘excessive wealth’ or how excessive is excessive. In fact, a capitalist reacted sharply to the Vatican statement saying, “There’s no such thing as excessive wealth, only badly used wealth.” Yet even a cursory look at the massive poverty in the Philippines, hardly dented by the economy’s recent much-touted phenomenal growths, and in whose hands the lion’s share of the pie is, excessive would not be too hard to see or determine. The country’s elite, many of whom seem heroically scrambling to find the magic wand that will make the country’s poverty go away, are themselves compounding the problem.
            And they do so by giving in to the greed that fuels the seventh new deadly sin. Ms. Napoles, the legislators and other public officials as well as private citizens involved in the pork scam, no matter how singularly dreadful, may only be part of the bigger picture. One asks, as I have many times asked: How many Ms. Napoles are out there and how much don’t we really know about our legislators’ or public officials’ actual involvement in this and other still-unheard-of scams? It is a gross mistake to judge one’s integrity or corruption from the presence or absence of one’s name in one Napolist or another. This the incumbent Eastern Samar Congressman and many others like him must learn, lest future exposes or discoveries may make their bubbles burst.
            At this point, it may be useful to review, in anticipation of the reader’s question, the new seven deadly sins. In the order the document presents them, these are the following: (1) drug abuse; (2) morally debatable experimentations; (3) environmental pollution; (4) causing poverty; (5) social injustice and inequality; (6) genetic manipulation; and (7) accumulating excessive wealth.
            To my mind these sins are deadly because each constitutes a threat to human life in its entirety: physical/material/economic but also spiritual, moral, psychological, political and socio-cultural. Neither does it seem too difficult to see why the seventh deadly sin or the sin of accumulating excessive wealth is deadly, especially in regard to the beloved country we call our own. Mainly it is because sin number seven (7) is the single biggest factor behind sin number four (4), the sin of causing poverty which exacerbates sin number five (5), social injustice and inequality. When only a few human beings possess so much wealth, it naturally impoverishes the many to whom some of it justly belongs. Besides, greed which fuels sin number seven is really one of the original capital or deadly sins, hardly assuaged even by a willingness to share the crumbs with the teeming poor masses in a trickle-down economy. Anything less than social justice will not undo the poverty of our masses.
            On the other hand, for committed Catholics and human beings in general, what pains most is that excessive wealth in a few violates the principle of the universal destination of goods. It should be most painful for Filipino Catholics who take their faith seriously because excessive wealth is a slap-in-face to the constant teaching of the Catholic Church that the earth’s goods are meant for all because they were created to benefit all human beings and the whole human being (material and spiritual). That some local churches, dioceses or parishes, have so much wealth while many languish in constant penury is very much of a piece with this deadly sin. Both clergy and laity must work together to not only acknowledge this crying shame but to do penance by setting the example of founding charity on real justice both in the Church and in Philippine society.
            In his first letter to Timothy, Paul denounced false teachers, pointing to the love of money as one of their distinguishing marks: something we, both clergy and laity, must take to heart for, like it or not, we are all teachers of the faith in word or in deed.
            Says the Apostle to the Gentiles: “In reality, religion is a treasure if we are content with what we have. We brought nothing into the world and we will leave it with nothing…Those who strive to be rich fall into temptations and traps. A lot of foolish and harmful ambitions plunge them into ruin and destruction. Indeed, the love of money is the root of all evil. Because of this greed, some have wandered away from the faith, bringing on themselves afflictions of every kind” (1 Tim 6:6-10).
            In not a few instances I have heard people denouncing money or wealth as the root of all evil. That is neither what St. Paul nor this article has been saying. It is not wealth or money that is evil but the love of it, something that can drive us to accumulating excessive wealth.

            The Christian antidote? Accumulate love and care for the poor, strongly enough to find effective ways to true social justice and equality in the Philippines and in the world. When we shall have reached our goal, there should be no problem with anything excessive.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A saint’s simplicity and the Napolist culture

THE canonization of St. John Paul II last April 27, 2014 brought me back to the 90s when I was a student priest in Rome. Even then I already counted myself among the blessed (not in a technical way and certainly without official church approval). I had only one reason for feeling the way I did:  I was breathing the same air the Holy Father breathed. And he wasn’t even canonized yet. Every time Bus 46 passed St. Peter’s Square as I tried to make my way to The Greg (Pontifical Gregorian University), I would silently breathe in, hoping some tiny bits of grace from then Pope John Paul II’s prayers would find their way to me and my little concerns.  Which brings me to the second reason: I was writing a dissertation on his vision of the local Church and its role in societal transformation. I confess it all started when I heard, as a seminarian, the Holy Father’s strong words on upholding human rights and dignity to then President Marcos (on his 1981 visit to the Philippines). I wouldn’t tell you about that, at least not here.
            Since the canonization my mind keeps on giving me flashbacks. My mind, as anybody else’s, is a veritable time machine. Lately these flashbacks have taken me to two occasions at which I had a chance to concelebrate Mass with Pope John Paul II out of sheer grace. Each took place in the Holy Father’s little chapel at the Vatican, with no more than 20 people in attendance.
            On the second occasion I was a designated reader. It was only when I was actually doing the reading that I realized how lucky I was because the Holy Father was only a foot away (it felt so much better than Clarissa Ocampo’s being only a foot away from Jose Velarde). Once in a while I glanced his way. It struck me how simple he was. The Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church displayed none of the pomp of power Hollywood associates with popes and kings. In fact, I noticed his white papal zucchetto (skullcap), like his dress, was rather worn-out and faded. When he prayed I could hear him groaning as though he was turning over to God the Church’s and the world’s burdens. I thought afterwards that if the Holy Father mingled with other senior priests then, it would have been hard to recognize him as the Visible Head of Roman Catholic Church.
            In fact, the Church’s Head was the epitome of simplicity. Because of his simplicity and poverty people hardly recognized him for who he is. That is why, for instance, he says in the gospel of Luke: “You cannot tell by careful watching when the reign of God will come. Neither is it a matter of reporting that it is ‘here’ or ‘there’. The reign of God is in your midst” (Lk 17:20-21). What is Jesus referring to here? Himself. The Kingdom of God is in our midst because Jesus has brought it to us in his person. In himself God reigns and in himself God’s will is perfectly fulfilled. Another saintly pope, Blessed Paul VI would agree when he directly and accurately taught the NT idea of the Kingdom of God as “not a place but a person, the Person of Jesus Christ.” And yet this Jesus Christ was clothed in simplicity unlike anyone else’s. The non-simple could neither recognize him nor fathom his message. Is it any wonder?
            The Napolist culture is an indictment of how we have abandoned simplicity in our society for big money life and politics. While the media have almost single-mindedly brought our attention to the names of lawmakers (senators and congressmen) as well as other personalities in their public or private capacities, the media or even the Church, we conveniently forget that we too share in the blame we so willingly cast on others. After all, it is we who have long cultivated the Napolist culture by allowing money to control our politics and almost anything else in our social relations. That no one, no matter how qualified in other crucial criteria, can run for any local or national office without him/her wooing the masses to the tune of millions (I suspect, even billions) of pesos is the staple food of any ‘Napolitan’ practitioner or aspirant. This, together with patronage politics, provides highly fertile ground for the Napolist culture. A remark by Ruby Tuason, explaining why she allowed herself to be a bag lady for a senator’s PDAF share so she could help him respond to people who were constantly asking the senator for money assistance to needs of various kinds, was very telling. Multiply that situation with the number of our public servants or even celebrities and it wouldn’t be too hard to see why the ‘Napolist’ may only be the tip of the iceberg.
            I guess I could say, to paraphrase a popular saying, I have seen the Napolist and the Napolist is us.
            We need to rediscover simplicity, even if through a saintly pope whom we love in the Philippines, to respond to the Napolist culture. St. John Paul II’s simplicity urges us to be simple enough to be uncluttered by the materialism around us in order to get to the essence of life: faith, hope and love that should be concrete in the way we hold office, work, transact business or provide services. Simple enough to see that the abuse of power starts with us who abuse the power to vote when we vote the undeserving into office. Simple enough to refrain from treating public officials as fiscal messiahs because it compels them to be corrupt. Simple enough never to stop demanding transparency and accountability from those who manage, well or ill, the resources of our government and society. Simple enough to demand both sides of the Napolist  or other corruption charges. Simple enough to admit that if we keep refusing to check the performance of people in power out of fear or sloth, we reap the whirlwinds.
            Simple enough to realize, every constantly, that we must live simply so that many more may simply live.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Rediscovering San Isidro Labrador

IN my hometown of Borongan May is a festive month for as long as I remember. No other thing makes it so than the many neighborhood, clan, barangay, farmers’ and workers’ associations around San Isidro Labrador, prompting people to request Masses in honor of the farmer saint for their association or community and organize dance parties in the aftermath. (Our team ministry was once inundated with such requests that I almost collapsed out of sheer exhaustion on top of the summer heat after my last San Isidro Mass).
You could say we are exceedingly religious to be requesting Masses to introduce street or neighborhood parties. I would grant a point there. But, as I have often publicly decried, the presence of mostly a handful of women and children in these liturgical celebrations while the men folk and the rest of the people troop to the evening dance parties in droves is very telling. And it is very telling, for one, of how much we could keep a tradition without remembering why, of how we could be deep into an event without knowing its story.
To say that San Isidro Labrador celebrations should never be used as an excuse for semi-pagan revelry may sound like a non-Catholic commentary. But nothing is more Catholic, Christian and sane than purifying our celebrations around the feasts of our favorite saints in order to make them serve better the true teachings of the faith and Christ-centered living.
Even the saints would desire that. And miss we should and must not what our forebears were teaching us in the original story of our traditions around San Isidro Labrador. Things that San Isidro Labrador himself continues to teach us from his deeds rather than his words.
One: Worship of God is the highest priority. San Isidro’s example of going to Mass first thing in the morning is essentially the spirit behind our forebears’ instructing us to request a Mass in honor of the farmer saint before even considering other activities to mark his feast day. It should not escape our attention that San Isidro himself even ignored his fellow farmers’ complaints and taunts when he spent plenty of time in worship and prayer at Mass before he would even handle a plough. Nowadays we easily go where the crowds are headed, which tells us how much courage it took San Isidro to follow his highest priority.
Two: What works in life is not you and I insisting, “Show me, Lord, and I’ll believe” but the Lord urging us, “Believe first and I’ll show you”. Again we gather this from San Isidro’s example. When asked by his landlord, Juan de Vargas, at the prompting of other complaining farmers, if someone was helping him till his parcel of land to explain its greater yield, San Isidro insisted he only had himself and God. The truth of the matter was, he had so much faith in God it bore fruit in miracles, including those tales of angels helping him plow the field and his reaping big harvests.
Three: Charity may begin at home but it doesn’t end there; it is also extended to others, especially to those most in need. Accounts tell of how San Isidro would divide his harvests and earnings into three: a portion was reserved for the church, another for the needy and the third, for his family. At the risk of being accused of bias, I see in this act San Isidro Labrador’s expression of his love for God above everything and love of neighbor as extension of his love of self which includes love of family. San Isidro’s practice of charity is a proclamation that God’s love is not, as it were, a self-enclosed lake but a river that overflows. And it overflows into his creatures, us human beings especially who, he expects, must share the flow with the most deserving. Of the stories regarding San Isidro’s charity I like best the one in which he brought beggars with him to a luncheon invitation. On being told only he was invited, he nevertheless  asked for his share and divided it with the beggars. What a catechism in action. (I might add, partly in jest, how San Isidro’s courage went with his charity because it took a lot of courage to ask for his share after the rebuff by his host.)
Four: Love of God and love of neighbor includes practical love for the rest of God’s creation. For instance, who would miss the account of San Isidro’s kindness to hungry birds? We are told of the farmer saint bringing a sack of corn to the mill one morning and, seeing hungry birds scavenging vainly for food on a frosty field, poured half of the sack’s contents for the birds to eat. Again he ignored the taunts of people around him when he did this. But, on arriving at the mill, his sack was full again and the resulting ground corn produced twice as much flour. The farmer saint ignored and, it is safe to say, even forgave his enemies. I guess I could say that the Lord blessed him for that and got even on his behalf. But  that is not the point I wish to make. What we must gather from the farmer saint’s example is his love for God’s creatures, which is very much of a piece with today’s Church’s emphasis on the integrity of God’s creation and our obligation in charity to protect the environment. Love not usefulness should be our motivation.
Finally, his daily union with Jesus in the Eucharist and through personal prayer bore fruit in the Lord working in him and through him. Should we be surprised about the miracle stories through the farmer saint’s intercession before and after his death? Of how he simply pricked the earth one day and a spring gushed forth, of how he helped the triumph of Christian troops over the Moors through a secret path he revealed to Alfonse VIII to spring a surprise attack on them; of how he obtained cures for peasants and royalty alike; of how even his dead body, which was discovered to be incorrupt, occasioned spectacular healings? In awe, yes; but surprised, we need not be. Why? Because Jesus who worked miracles while on earth is still present and continually working in his Church; and this is clear especially in his saints.

Yet I humbly submit that the greatest miracle of San Isidro Labrador is his staying power even in our modern consciousness. This is something that comes, I believe, from the timelessness of his life’s message: Faith that is expressed in charity is the key not only to the consolations of God but especially to the God of consolations.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Day of the Four Popes

THERE simply is no question about it. April 27, 2014, Divine Mercy Sunday, has no parallel in the history of the Church or of the world. A current pope, Francis I, proclaimed before an immense sea of humanity at St. Peter’s Square and billions around the world glued to their television sets and internet-facilitated gadgets two predecessor popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, “to be saints” and enrolled them “among the saints, decreeing that they be venerated as such by the whole Church” while on the sideline his immediate predecessor, almost shy and remarkably self-effacing, Benedict XVI, stood witness to the occasion. A pilgrim in Rome could not help remarking about two papal “saints in heaven” and another two “at St. Peter’s Square”.
Two recognized saints on the one hand; two potential saints on the other?
Fast forward to today. Beyond the jubilation and the cacophony of praise and criticism from both Catholics and non-Catholics, need we not ask the all-important question: What does the event tell us professed Christians of this day and age? Without pretending to have the last word on the matter, I would like to share a few of my unsolicited thoughts.
One, the Petrine ministry, the other name for the role of Roman Catholic Pontiffs among both Catholics and non-Catholic Christians, is healthy and strong. More than two thousand years after Jesus said to Peter, “You are Peter (Kephas) and upon this Rock I will build my Church and the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18), Peter still stands in the person of contemporary Roman Pontiffs, contrary winds or ever-loyal following notwithstanding. It is unfortunate that we still hear this name “Roman Pontiff” to call the successor of the Apostle Peter by. But, like the Incarnation has the Word of God inexplicably and irretrievably intertwined with our human nature, the Shoes of the Fisherman are till now inseparable from the cobblestone pathways of Rome. The Vicar of Christ, like his Master, is in the world though not of it. What’s in a name? Faith and Scriptures answer: “Mission”. The Apostle Peter and his successors have a firm foothold in the Eternal City so as to proclaim and usher in eternity to the world, with the Lord’s flock constantly coming in and going forth to drink in the message in order to later spread it from the house tops of today’s humanity. Two papal saints in heaven and two saintly popes on earth is a big statement of Jesus Christ’s unshakable faithfulness to his promise. Peter may have had lapses and falls from grace; but the love of the Master always sustains him with more than enough strength to lift up and guide the faith of the flock as well as the attention of the world on the ways of the Kingdom.
Two, the practice of venerating saints adds to and not detracts from the following of Jesus Christ. Reviled and at times openly called “idolatry” by non-Catholics, the spiritual activity in which and by which Catholics call upon canonized saints to pray for their needs and intentions, mindful of their gifts and charisms while still on earth, is still alive and kicking, if we are to judge from the immense crowds in Rome before, during and after the canonization of the two popes. Even despite misconceptions perpetrated by secular media, such as Sts. John Paul II and John XXIII being “performer of miracles” (it is never the saint but God who does the miracles at the saints’ intercessions, Catholics constantly are compelled insist to their dismay), the faithful freely share their experiences of having recourse to saints’ intercessions and obtaining answers from heaven, miraculous or non-miraculous. Why does this not detract from the following of Jesus Christ? The answer appears so simple and yet so profound to me. The saints, papal or not, reflect to us the many aspects of Jesus Christ and it is to Jesus Christ that they lead their devotees despite appearances.
Three, four popes in one day to me speak of the diversity in unity that is very real in the Body of Christ that the Church is. The Pauline vision is nowhere more pronounced than in the diverse personalities, emphases and orientations of these four past and present Supreme Shepherds of the Roman Catholic Church. The kindly, well-humored “Good Pope John XXIII”, initially dismissed as a short-term transition pope and yet proving himself a revolutionary by convoking Vatican II already amazes any student of history. Place him side by side with the intellectual contemplative yet hugely charismatic Pope John Paul II who both fervently followed up Vatican II reforms and strongly clarified parameters, who traveled more than any pope in history, wrote more encyclicals, canonized more saints, helped bring down communist regimes in Eastern Europe, chastised dictators as well as radical clergy, remained silent when vilified as an arch-conservative and yet loudly denounced injustices and violations of human rights around the globe. It is extremely difficult to not be in awe of these two saints. In addition, who would not be hard put to explain the obviously un-similar personalities of the mild-mannered intellectual, progressive conservative Pope Benedict XVI who courageously and humbly stepped down from the papal throne so as to make way to a down-to-earth pastor named Pope Francis whose vaunted humility and discomfort with the trappings of power is now attracting immense attention and the opportunity to personalize the New Evangelization in the age of Facebook and Twitter? And yet who would ever doubt the unity these Supreme Pastors exhibit in proclaiming Christ and his Kingdom in season and out of season within the orthodoxy and dynamism of the Catholic faith?
The specter of four popes in one day is not about four spiritual leaders grabbing the spotlight in an ephemeral way. It is about the past and present of Christianity converging and continuing to shed light on humanity from the faith of the Apostle Peter.

And the faith of the Apostle Peter is about Jesus Christ who is “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Rev 22:13).