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.