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.