Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Pacman and the Filipino

LEST I be misunderstood, my interest in writing about Manny Pacquiao has really nothing to do with his celebrity status as a boxer. My interest is in what his relationship with Filipinos worldwide tells us about ourselves. It is beyond dispute that Manny Pacquiao, especially when he goes into big fights, effectively unites Filipinos behind him, whatever their language, place of origin, politics, religion or gender. For example, I found it more than interesting that the known terrorist Basit Usman even made himself vulnerable to an assassin’s bullet when he stopped to check on Manny Pacquiao’s ‘Fight of the Century’ at which Manny Pacquiao’s champion status was likewise assassinated, as it were, by Mayweather’s smarter defensive and evasive skills as well as dirty tactics. The resulting defeat by the Pinoy icon was as resounding as the collective disbelief and grief of ordinary Filipinos. Initially Pacman himself objected, saying he thought he won the fight but later admitted that, although he did his “best”, his “best was not good enough” at least to the judges and the computer stats.
What I find striking is how Filipinos identify with the Pacman in his victories and also in his defeats. There is no dearth of real heroes in the Philippines, what with so many official ones in history’s textbooks and unofficial ones in OFWs etc. in addition. But no one among them has achieved the celebrity status of a Manny Pacquiao in such a sensational and spectacular fashion, especially when we consider his dramatic rise from a “starving street kid” to one of the world’s highest paid and highest earning athletes. His victories over bigger and stronger foes were nothing short of incredible. But it is perhaps because he used to be as poor as most Filipinos that they feel one with him
As a priest I find it remarkable how his real Christian name ‘Emmanuel’ is hardly not seen for its symbolic value. Translated even in the gospels as “God-is-with-us” I see in the phenomenon called Emmanuel Pacquiao God’s way of grabbing our attention to his presence in our midst. That the original ‘Emmanuel’ himself went through disappointing, dismaying and violent defeat especially in his crucifixion on his way to his resurrection is, to my mind, somewhat dramatized in Pacman’s defeats and rising-again victories. Not that I’m predicting that he would rise again by defeating another foe or foes in a blaze of glory before he hangs up his gloves. A greater victory than one in the ring would perhaps be his victory over the politics of corruption and patronage in which he himself is sometimes inevitably entangled. The victory that he could help achieve with greater impact would be over the excruciating poverty and social injustice among his own constituents and in the very country that immensely idolizes him.
Again as a priest I hope and pray for another distinct victory: That Pacman overcomes the distorted view of the Catholic faith (in which he grew up) that he might have received from his non-Catholic friends as well as from unenlightened Catholics around him (alas, it could include Mommy D too). His abandonment of the rosary and the sign of the cross before his every fight has certainly earned him a lot less sympathy from priests, bishops and conscientious Catholics who look at it as caving in to the distortion of ‘Mariolatry’ from his influential non-Catholic pastor friends. It also considerably lessened the number of those who pray for him, not excluding the upright ones who are already in heaven whose prayer, if he is to believe St. James, “is powerful with God” (Jas. 5:16). I am hoping that Pacman does not distort, with his friends, the valid veneration of Mama Mary and the saints and call it worship that it is not. As long as that victory is not achieved, defeat at the hands of Mayweather can only point to an ongoing inside defeat he suffers from.
Ernest Hemingway in his novel The Old Man and the Sea once wrote:
”But man is not made for defeat. He can be destroyed but not defeated.”
Is this the reason why Manny Pacquiao, with fellow Pinoys supporting him, has not really accepted his defeat at the hands of Floyd Mayweather, Jr.? It is hard to say. But in my book both fighters have really suffered defeat at the hands of pride: Pacman when he predicted he could easily beat Mayweather and the latter when he continually touts Pacman as not within his league and can easily defeat him again and again in as many times as they might hypothetically meet in the ring. Pride is the great blindfold. Pacman’s prior prediction of victory blinded him to the strengths of his foe; Mayweather’s basking in self-glorification blinds him to his ‘hugging’ and ‘running’ dirty tactics, among others.

I agree with H. W. Beecher who said that “defeat is a school in which truth always grows stronger.” And the truth that we must let grow stronger is this: The hero is really not out there in someone like Pacman but in ourselves whenever the values that define who we are define the way we live.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

San Pedro Calungsod: What a young Pinoy martyr says to us today

NO, it is not as if San Pedro Calungsod is calling a press conference to read a prepared statement. It is rather you and I being challenged to read his statement from what words don’t provide: namely, his acts that led him to a violent death and to a martyr’s crown. These acts also lead us to glimpses of his character, the kind of life he represents and the response we are asked to make.
            To me the following are among the volumes his acts speak.
What is done for God’s Kingdom is timeless
First, we ask the question: How come it took more than three centuries for the Church and the world to recognize the heroism of one Filipino young man named Pedro Calungsod? The answer is that his cause was effectively shelved when the cause of Blessed Diego Luis de San Vitores, the Jesuit missionary priest whom he accompanied even in death was also shelved shortly after they were violently murdered. It is beyond us to determine what factors were behind the centuries-old delay. But it goes without saying that being recognized by the Church on earth and the believing world then or now matters only insofar as it helps believers and non-believers come to know, give due honor to and emulate an authentic witness to Jesus Christ.
It seems to me that San Pedro Calungsod’s testimony may have greater weight now than in his own time if only because our young today are ever constantly challenged to be true to their Christian faith. The one truth that rings with greater clarity is that it matters little if he or his companions were not recognized at the altar of the Church sooner; his act of self-giving and martyrdom neither grows old nor irrelevant. The reason is that the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ that he proclaimed by his life and death is timeless. Here the axiom applies: “Age doesn’t matter because the matter doesn’t age.”

No one is too young to be a witness to Jesus Christ
Filipino parents, as a rule, are very protective of their children. In fact, even after marriage many of them live close to their parents, if not in the same roof with them and under their protective care. It is the poor who are mostly compelled to sometimes give up family proximity, for example today, because either the parents have to leave the country to find decent work or when able children themselves leave home to do their own share in the family’s survival and upkeep through a job thousands of miles away. Whether or not San Pedro came from a poor or well-to-do family is not established; no documents are on hand to provide that information. But it would not be surprising at all if, given the conditions and circumstances obtaining in his time, he did not come from a family of landowners or the moneyed elite. It would not have been easy for a Jesuit missionary to recruit for the missions a companion from among the natives’ elite families but a lot less harder to do so from poorer families who would have regarded it a great honor and privilege.
A willing young man, like Pedro, not without the lure of adventure possibly also at the back of his mind, would have likely come from such families. This consideration should not, however, detract from the fact that San Pedro Calungsod, whatever his social background was, proved himself a true witness to Jesus Christ in life and especially in death. I see in this a twofold challenge for today’s Pinoys: To the older ones among us, to not allow the opportunity of evangelizing the young to pass us by; to the young, to never delay evangelizing because of youth.

The missionary is a person of sacrifice
Today countless Filipinos continue to leave the country to look for opportunities to a better life. But at the time of San Pedro Calungsod this was not so. Leaving the country was mostly a choice for the moneyed elite, the criminal or the missionary among the native Filipinos. For the moneyed elite, it was mainly to seek better European education; for the criminal, for the obvious reason of being able to evade not only the responsibility for his actions but also a justice system tilted against him; for the missionary, to follow a vocation, a spiritual calling to leave everything for the sake of Jesus Christ and his Gospel.
In a word, San Pedro’s departure was to a life of sacrifice, not to greener pastures, except when the greener pastures referred to the other life. For San Pedro it was not been easy. He was young, he was a lay person who had to live like a religious detached from everything and everyone familiar. More than this, he had to embrace a life of uncertainty and danger, of provisions not sure of arriving regularly, of constant prayer and self-giving, of being with people teaching, catechizing or organizing them as Christian (Catholic) communities. San Pedro was a sacristan; part of his work was to carry a rather heavy altar stone everywhere Padre Diego Luis would go to, especially on extended periods where the Eucharist would have been celebrated periodically. Yet to all this he said yes and out of all this he even found cheer and contentment.

A lie is kin to death
Padre Diego Luis de San Vitores and Pedro Calungsod were killed because of a lie. It was one whose source was a Chinese merchant, exiled from Manila for having committed a crime. His name was Choco who spread the rumor that the water being used by the missionaries to baptize the children of the native Guamanians was poisonous and that this was the reason why some of them died shortly after baptism. A father named Matapang whose child was baptized by Padre Diego, with the assistance of Pedro, became murderously furious, as he took Choco’s lie hook, line and sinker. He had a partner named Hirao who initially refused but later joined Matapang after being called a coward by the latter. They killed Pedro first and then Padre Diego Luis.
The circumstances were uncanny. They seem reminiscent of the death and murder of Jesus himself: of the lie authored by Jewish and Roman authorities that he was an impostor, that he deceived people by his declaration that he is God’s Son and by his promise of eternal life. Incidentally they also remind us of real lies in our day and age that are just as deadly: for instance, that we can make life better without God and without the constraints of faith’s moral values, that promoting contraception and abortion are essential to human progress and development, that money and winning are everything, even at the expense of suppressing the voice of conscience and the demands of justice.

It takes courage to proclaim Christ in a hostile environment
San Pedro Calungsod and Blessed Padre Diego Luis de San Vitores had to face a group of people led by Matapang and Hirao that could only be described kindly as unfriendly. Of course, the better representatives of the Marianas’ populace could have been more numerous; unfortunately they did not rule the day. Historians point out that Pedro and Padre Diego could just have left the Marianas and returned to the Philippines or proceeded to more welcoming territories to proclaim Christ and the gospel. But they chose to stay and, without question, to offer their lives for the sake of the mission.
Their courage and generosity should not escape us. Courage because they did not run from their  mission even if they could; generosity because, in choosing not to fight even in self-defense, they made themselves ready for the ultimate sacrifice. For these reasons alone they deserve to be recognized even as human heroes. But having taken those actions for Jesus Christ and his kingdom especially makes them heroes of the faith.

Loyalty to Jesus Christ means loyalty to my brother or sister in faith
From hindsight students of San Pedro’s life and times, with ample support from historians, point out that, being young and strong, San Pedro Calungsod could have ably defended himself and even defeated his killers, Matapang or Hirao. He could have easily fled to safety and Padre Diego Luis would have understood, or been happier about, his action.
But the unshakable point is, San Pedro chose not to. He chose to stay with Padre Diego Luis and at some point used his own body to shield the priest. At that point Hirao struck him on the chest and, sensing an opportunity, went to strike him on the head as well, leading to the saint’s death. San Pedro’s action is often extolled for its depiction of the Filipino loyalty to friends and superiors. But in this specific case, something even higher was at stake: He was a catechist and a sacristan standing by a spiritual friend and pastor (Padre Diego) right to the bitter end. That is, and it is worth repeating, we see someone dying out of a sense of loyalty to Jesus Christ; to San Pedro loyalty to Jesus Christ and loyalty to a brother was inseparable.  San Pedro Calungsod, in a word, was an icon of the gospel.

The reality at work always and everywhere: love of God in Christ Jesus
There is always a veil of mystery when we are confronted with extraordinary heroism. Who would not marvel, for example, over a twelve-year-old St. Maria Goretti being able to resist a rapist, preferring instead to die rather than sin in his hands? Or who would not be in awe at the ability of a St. Maximilian Kolbe to courageously volunteer to die in place of a condemned married man and be the last to actually expire after helping his fellow condemned prisoners to face death under God’s grace? In the case of San Pedro Calungsod, who would not admire his choice to ignore his own personal safety and to sacrifice a whole future to stay and die with a friend and pastor? The event happened so fast and so was his fateful decision. But San Pedro did not hesitate.

I submit that this is because in all of these instances we witness the same reality at work in diverse ways and forms—God’s love. It is this love that we see in the most sublime way shining in Jesus Christ’s own sacrifice. And we see it continually shining in those who, like San Pedro Calungsod, are moved by the Spirit in certain graced circumstances, to follow Jesus Christ unhesitatingly on life’s many pathways to Calvary and the Resurrection.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Learning to pray from the Scriptures and the saints

THERE are just so many things, a plethora of them to be imprecise, in the Philippines and in the world that drive anyone to have recourse to prayer. Clear and present dangers and challenges, ongoing crises of every kind, patent uncertainties and bright opportunities etc., name it and we have it. But these are not the only reasons why we pray. In every moment and circumstance of a Christian disciple’s life prayer is of the essence. To say that I am a Christian but I don’t pray is to be a living contradiction. A Christian disciple is a person of prayer; or a Christian disciple he/she is not. I think praying, like living, is something we learn by doing. But it helps when the Word of God as well as those who have lived by it all their lives—the saints, to be exact—speak to us about prayer itself.
            So what do we need to know about our spirit’s way of breathing, i.e., prayer?
            1. It must be born of our union with the Master. “If you remain in me,” Jesus says in the gospel of John, “and my words stay part of you, you may ask what you will and it will be given you” (Jn 15:7). If I stay away from the Master through sin, how can my prayer ever be effective? Unless, of course, I repent and do a ‘metanoia’, a radical about-face from sin and plunge myself into the Lord’s mercy by asking for forgiveness and amending my life, my prayer would be of little use to me or to anyone. St. Ignatius speaks likewise: “We must speak to God as a friend speaks to his friend, a servant to his Master; now asking some favor, now acknowledging our faults, and communicating to Him all that concerns us, our thoughts, our fears, our projects, our desires, and in all things seeking is counsel.”
            2. It must be of faith. Even doctors attest to how necessary it is for patients to believe in their (doctor’s) credentials to the healing process. Jesus, in fact, promises positive results to prayer of faith: “Whatever you ask for in prayer, full of faith, you will receive” (Mt 21:22). St. James, in another context, makes the same point: “The prayer said in faith will save the sick person…” (Jas 5:15). This is why St. Augustine urges Christians: “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”
            3. It must aim at ultimately doing the Lord’s will. One obvious mistake we do in prayer, my Christology professor used to say, is to try to convert God to do our will in prayer when we should be converted to do his will as a result of praying. The example of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew is most instructive. As he faces the specter of his crucifixion and death he prays: “Father, if it is possible, take this cup away from me. Yet not my will but your will…” (Mt 26:39). Not content with saying it once, Jesus repeats this prayer, with a slight variation: “Father, if this cup cannot be taken away from me without my drinking it, let your will be done” (Mt 26:42). Blessed Mary McKillop teaches us in the same vein: “Let us all resign ourselves into His hands, and pray that in all things He may guide us to do His holy Will…When thoughts of this or that come I turn to Him and say, ‘Only what you will, my God. Use me as You will.”
            4. It must not be self-centered nor by oneself alone. This is not to say that private prayer is illegitimate. This is to say that all prayer, private or communal, must come out of love. It is in the context of a loving heart at prayer that St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori says: “He who prays most receives most.” St. Therese of Lisieux educates us as to why love is inseparable from prayer: “Prayer is an aspiration of the heart. It is a simple glance directed to heaven. It is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy…” Because of the love that characterizes the community of disciples that we call Church Jesus says, in fact: “For where two or three are gathered together in my Name, there I am in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20).
            5. It must be humble. Scriptures in so many instances bear witness to how prayer uttered in humility pierces heaven more effectively than a superabundance of our words or good deeds. This is the lesson we learn from the humble publican who prays, not even raising his eyes to heaven: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Lk 18:13), to which Jesus exclaims: “I tell you, this man went home reconciled with God, unlike the other (the Pharisee who paraded his good deeds in prayer). For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 18:14). In fact, the psalmists affirm Jesus’ teaching: “O God, my sacrifice, a contrite spirit, a humble and contrite heart you will not spurn” (Ps 51:19). St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi concurs: “Prayer ought to be humble, fervent, resigned, persevering, and accompanied with great reverence. One should consider that he stands in the presence of God, and speaks with the Lord before whom the angels tremble from awe and fear.”
            6. It must be honest. When we pray from the heart, it cannot be untruthful. We are before the Truth himself and dishonesty and lying would not only be futile but also profoundly harmful to our spiritual health. We engage in dishonest prayer when we express words or thoughts that we do not mean and do not mean the words or thoughts we express. Which is why Jesus counsels us to avoid ostentation in prayer: “When you pray, go to your room, close your door and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees what is kept in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:6). What better room is there than our own heart where we pray to the Lord as truthfully as he sees our heart to be saying. After all, as John the Evangelist reminds us: “He [Jesus] didn’t need any evidence about anyone for himself, for he himself knew what there is in man” (Jn 2:25). St. Faustina Kowalska recounts of the words the Lord Jesus says to her in a private revelation: “My daughter…why do you not tell me about everything that concerns you, even the smallest details?” When she protests that He knows everything, Jesus’ reply is a bit startling: “Yes, I do know; but you should not excuse yourself from the fact that I know, but with childhood simplicity talk to me about everything, for my ears and heart are inclined towards you, and your words are dear to me.”
            This brings us to the point of praying. We are “dear” to the Lord even before we see the way he sees us. “For love consists in this: Not that we have loved God but that God has loved us first, and has sent us his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10).

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A beleaguered leadership

“The Presidency is not merely an administrative office. That’s the least of it.  It is more than an engineering job, efficient or inefficient. It is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt, New York Times Magazine, September 11, 1932)

FIRST, a preface to my views. Being a member of the clergy, be he a bishop, priest or deacon, does not terminate that person’s a being Filipino and a citizen of the Republic. Like any other citizen, he has every right to form his ideas or opinions on the country’s political, economic and socio-cultural conditions. In addition, he has every right to express them as well. On the other hand, also like any other citizen, this gives him no right to violate any law.
No Filipino citizen today can ignore his country’s over-all conditions and, in particular, the way it is being run, and still maintain that he/she loves the Philippines. It is hard to miss the many discordant winds around us. Latest economic forecasts boldly say that the country will be second only to China in economic growth, and this the president’s supporters feel is enough reason to leave him alone and let him finish his term, at the least. But, despite efforts, at times valiant and creative, poverty is hardly dented. Growth has been anything but inclusive. It is understandable that the business sector and the upper echelons of the economic-socio-political ladder that benefit most from the economic gains insist on leaving things well enough alone. They believe that present indicators speak much for the president’s excellence in steering us to unheard-of heights according to solid economic fundamentals.
Alas, all this sounds hollow to the urban and rural poor who constantly worry about not having a roof over their heads, a meal or two to survive another day, a child or two being unable to continue schooling because of continuing military operations against rebel groups or because they simply cannot afford the costs of higher education or because two super typhoons and/or sporadic big fires in crowded places of residence have sapped the family’s resources. And their government, let alone their president, has seemed unable to truly help.
Then came the Mamasapano debacle. Forty-four valiant members of the national police Special Action Force, mostly members of the underclass of Philippine society, successfully neutralized an international terrorist, only to be ruthlessly massacred while attempting to exit the area by rebel groups. Seemingly to add salt to their family’s wounds, the Chief Executive was nowhere in sight when their bodies were brought back to Manila to waiting and wailing families. The reason? It was not on his schedule for the day, said Malacañang. At the same time, the media found him gracing the inaugural ceremonies of a Japanese car company operations in Laguna.
This insensitivity, however unintended and glossed over by official sources, stunned, shocked and drew the ire of many, especially among the victims’ families. Even as I write ripples of the anger surfaces now and then. Not even the long hours he spent talking to the fallen heroes’ families and relatives have dampened the clamor for him to come clean on the truth of his role and responsibility or irresponsibility that might have contributed in one way or another to the eventual carnage. Allowing a suspended PNP Chief’s continued involvement in an operation so sensitive and dangerous, while not informing his own DILG Secretary and the acting PNP Chief, is not exactly an exercise of good judgment and responsible leadership.
It is no secret that initially a good number of the Church hierarchy welcomed Pinoy’s presidency. The thought that a son of the heroic couple Ninoy and Cory Aquino would succeed the scam-ridden Arroyo administration raised hopes for a government of high moral ascendancy. The anti-wang-wang drive, the ousting of a Supreme Court Chief Justice, the unveiling of the PDAF and DAP scammers accompanied by the jailing of some prominent politicians and businessmen—to cite a few—have inspired some confidence. But once in a while we also notice disappointing cracks. While the president has kept himself largely untainted, the same can not be said of a few of the people he surrounds himself with. The way the Reproductive Law was passed, what with generous DAP amounts being dangled before lawmakers’ eyes and also being withdrawn from non-supporters, greatly disappointed bishops and priests. It did not take long for them to realize that the president’s moral compass was guided less by magisterial teaching than by what Pope Francis would later term as “ideological invasions” he and the people he listened to have already embraced. And which, as a priest friend of mine pointed out once, they are “hopelessly devoted to”.
Perhaps this is only one of the reasons behind calls from some prominent Shepherds of the Church for the president to step down. I believe their views have to be respected. But personally I believe we need to take the bigger picture. Our current president was elected on the crest of a massive outpouring of sympathy for his deceased mother, President Cory, a turn of events he himself did not anticipate nor initially wanted. If ever any blame game had to be pursued to its awkward roots, the final finger could point in our direction and in the direction of our voters.
To my mind I believe we must address, as decisively as we can, two urgent concerns.
One, in so many elections, we the Church have done so much except educate voters effectively.

Two, in so many elections, we Filipino citizens have done so many things except vote wisely.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

An inconvenient dream

POPE Francis to Families at the Mall Of Asia, Manila, January 16, 2015: “Do not lose the ability to dream.”
            Allow me, Holy Father, to try. Here goes mine.
I dream of a Philippines where there is neither rich nor poor but only fellow Filipinos living as brothers and sisters.
And because they see themselves as family, they do not hesitate to share the wealth and resources of the country as well as the responsibility of running it justly in the manner of the early Christians “who shared everything in common” and “distributed according to each one’s need” (Acts 4:32, 35).
I dream of every Filipino being seen or judged not in terms of wealth or social status (a Tan? an Ayala? a Gokongwei? a Zobel?) but in terms of character and a track record of living out or not one’s faith or principles.
I dream of Filipino fishermen, farmers, carpenters, construction and factory workers sharing the same ability to buy the same meals and to live in the same neighborhood with Filipino tycoons and powerful politicians.
I dream of Filipino children not having to work even as children not because their parents can afford it but because they ought not yet to. I dream of the words “abuse”, “addiction”, “trafficking”, “prostitution” as being too alien to their minds to understand or to their personal or social lives because no family, neighborhood or community allows any. I dream of the Filipino young enjoying the same high quality of living conditions, exercising the same rights and responsibilities in education, arts, culture, entertainment, sports, and having the same access to employment opportunities.
I dream of every Filipino being able to say, “My family and I are prosperous and are proud about it because our country has made it possible for us!”
I dream of the phrase “going abroad” being totally incomprehensible to Filipinos because the Philippines has truly become the archipelago of opportunity where work and working conditions are tailor-made to the dignity of every worker and the needs of his family. I dream of “service” becoming truly of fashion and pursued with passion by businessmen, politicians, lawyers, doctors, nurses and other Filipino professionals for whom “profit-orientation” is now the greatest insult anyone can utter in their direction.
I dream of “poor” in the Philippines becoming unknown as an economic or social status but only as a spiritual and moral attitude, a way of living.
I dream of the Roman Catholic Church becoming truly a transformative Church not so much by force of teaching as by example.
I dream of the Filipino hierarchy and clergy as foremost models of a transformed and transforming Church. I dream of Filipino bishops, deacons and priests refusing to talk about “communion”, “social justice”, “mercy” or “compassion” without first walking it individually and collectively.
I dream that no Filipino priest has to go abroad like my high school seminary spiritual director who confessed he was looking for (financial) “security”. I dream that no Filipino diocesan priest has to desire to go to the cities or bigger parishes to afford a decent mode of transportation, medical insurance and old-age security. Or, like some priests from Ground Zero of Yolanda refusing to return to Leyte, to escape from extreme difficulties at home.
I dream that no Filipino diocesan priest in the provinces struggles, often unsuccessfully, to make ends meet while his brothers in the cities or urban centers make a career of changing their car’s or SUV’s model year after year, and find it hard to decide whether to go to Paris, Singapore, New York, Washington or Canberra this year.
I dream that no seriously ill diocesan priest in rural dioceses begs for contributions from his family, friends or parishioners to pay for his medical expenses.
I dream that no Filipino diocesan priest is classified as belonging to or serving a First, Second, Third or Fourth Class diocese or parish. The reason? Because all dioceses and religious orders in the Philippines have decided to go back to our roots—the early Church. They have committed to truly practice “communion” before talking about it, sharing human and material resources, and distributing them to every diocese according to its need.
The final episode of my dream: all dioceses and congregations of priests in the Philippines strictly adhere to and live by what they call the “ACTS FOUR, THIRTY TWO AND THIRTY FIVE CODE”. Sorry I can’t tell you what it means. It is highly confidential. All they can disclose at the moment to the public are the words: “We must do the walk first before the talk.”
By the way, my dream has a twist. I wake up to the present dreadful reality.

But with a difference. It is the Sunday of the Divine Child. As I face the Santo Nio, I revert to a dream state: the Word becoming flesh.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Watching Pope Francis from afar: some considerations

1. It was a long, multi-faceted preparation, from spiritual to physical to choreographic to fashion-oriented to artistic to security-meticulous. Sometimes one would wish that those who did the artistic or physical or security preparations also did the spiritual preparations as well. It would have helped avoid egregious things, such as the alleged ‘detention’ of street children to remove, as it were, potential ‘eyesores’ to the papal vision. Trouble is, if true, the utter lack of spirituality in a one-dimensional preparation more often than not results in authorities doing an Imelda instead of a Fr. Flanagan to street children and other eyesores of the republic.
2. Pope Francis is a living proof that there is a Holy Spirit and that he is still very active in the Roman Catholic Church. His election to the Chair (not throne please, popes are not kings but pastors) of St. Peter in a world filled with the massive shadows of terrorism, hatred, injustice, racism, economic-social-political inequities (as ever) truly brings the smile of God on people tired of the dark horizons. Obviously his papal election belongs in the realm of light and light comes from the Spirit of the Living God.
3. It is truly amazing how people among even those unable to personally ‘encounter’ the Holy Father but who watch him on television confess to feeling “truly happy” and “joyful” by the mere sight of him. I know. The social media broadcast that fact. Reactions to him are more often than not ‘trending’. I believe it is because the papacy is truly a testimony to the sacramentality of the Church. Catholics often take it for granted that they encounter Jesus Christ through Word and Sacrament defined fundamentally as “a visible material sign that convey and effect an invisible immaterial grace”. In a sense the Holy Father, being the visible head of the Roman Catholic Church, by the sacramentality of that same Church, brings to us the invisible presence of our invisible Head, Jesus Christ. No wonder he elicits joy in a way reminiscent of how Jesus’ presence in Mama Mary’s womb elicits joy in John the Baptist still in his own mother’s womb. This is what a Catholic loses when he leaves the Church. This is what non-Catholics miss by the fact that they simply center on the Word.
4. Pope Francis is often mistakenly characterized as a “cool celebrity” with  humble, easy and non-judgmental ways oozing ‘mercy and compassion’ to the suffering and the marginalized, however unpleasant sometimes to the naked eye  some of those he hugs or kisses. But he is also a tough prophet even with his gentle manners. This is, for example, shown in his Malacaang visit when in the face of a president who prides himself in being the epitome of anti-corruption politics he called on all Filipinos to stamp out corruption in all levels of their society. It was like telling the janitor to have his house swept thoroughly before he would even think of saying what he does for a living.
5. I was struck when he urged the clergy to shun compromises with the materialistic mindsets of the world by kicking the ‘complacency’ that makes them accepting of the “scandalous inequalities/inequities” of society. I was wondering if the Holy Father was also indirectly referring to the “scandalous inequities” among the Filipino clergy themselves. The fundamental illness of Philippine society can be traced, in clerical theological lingo, to the lack of real working ‘communion’ within the Philippine Church. We preach with enthusiasm and righteous gusto on ‘communion’ through faith that does justice, the very foundation of charity or Christian love. But as to whether we walk the talk we see concretely in priests in urban centers having multi-million worth SUVs, condos and other properties plus regular trips outside the country while their counter parts in the provinces barely make ends meet. Diocesan priests from the provinces migrating to urban centers or outside the country then is hardly a surprising reality but its scandalous character is almost on par with wealthy clergymen who stay blind to their brethren’s conditions. Real working ‘communion’ must start with the clergy. Bishops and decision-makers in the Church must truly allow the full implications of the gospel to shake our very institutions to the tune of love founded on justice done by faith. But we must walk before we talk and talk only because we walked it first. Tall order.  But very much like Pope Francis.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Faces of Philippine poverty before, during and beyond the Year of the Poor

FORGET the scientific studies for a while. Just open your eyes. Reality stings more than its objective presentations. I am speaking particularly of poverty in this country of super stars, super forecasts of super economic growths, super tycoons and super typhoons.
            I remember asking the congregation at the first Aguinaldo Mass last December 16, 2014, well within the Year of the Poor, to ponder the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Thus says the Lord, ‘Observe what is right, do what is just for my salvation is about to come, my justice, about to be revealed’” (Is 56:1). Lest Israel think this salvation is its exclusive property I asked the faithful at Mass to further reflect on how Isaiah forcefully brings the Israelites a reality check indirectly: “Let not the foreigner say, when he would join himself to the Lord, ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people’…The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,…all who keep the Sabbath free from profanation and hold to my covenant them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer…For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is 56:3-4, 6-7).
            The beauty of God’s salvation, in the vision of Isaiah, is that, unlike Philippine economic growth, it is inclusive. It is not meant only for Israel, unlike the material prosperity of recent Philippine economic achievements which have benefited mostly the upper echelons of Filipino society. What we are saying here is that the universality of God’s saving love is denied scandalously by the massive material poverty of our people. Again Isaiah has something to say even now as to why we have come to such a pass: Our present conditions obtain because by and large we have not “observed” “what is right”, not all Filipinos get their “just” share of the country’s wealth. That is why Isaiah’s words are an indictment of our society. But are we ever listening?
            Consider the following faces of our poor.
Fishermen, farmers, our working-class rural and urban poor. As a student priest in Rome I once visited Holland and marveled at the opulent houses we were passing by on the way to Amsterdam. “These are fishermen’s houses and properties,” I was told by our guide, a Filipino residing in the city. On another occasion, I was on a train from NYC to Cleveland, Ohio, to visit a priest there, and again I was awed by the seemingly endless fields of wheat in one place and of grapes in another. “Farmers own those,” I was told by a friend. I had to ask myself: Why are our fishermen and farmers in the Philippines so poor and live only in small houses of light and fragile materials, playthings to super typhoons, when they are the hands that feed all of us? Gary Granada sings our common aspiration: “Sana’y meron nang tahanan ang gumagawa ng bahay at masaganang hapunan ang naghahasik ng palay…”
Poverty in public schools, malnutrition of public school students. I was once in U.P. Los Baṅos at the invitation of a friend who once lived near the area. He was simply showing me the place and we had an afternoon to spend when I saw a sign of a zoological museum and decided to get in. My curiosity turned to big disappointment when I realized I was watching mostly photos or representations, not real or preserved specimens. It is not only once that heard U.P. students themselves criticizing the inefficiency of their own libraries and facilities in terms of services that are readily available in those of exclusive schools for the scions of the wealthy. If this is true to U.P., the premier public university, you could just imagine the situation in other public schools. Whenever I visit the farthest barangays of my parish I witness the heroism of our public school teachers who brave the rapids, torturous mountains and trails to reach children whom they teach with very meager resources and very often delayed salaries. Everywhere I see faces of malnourished children, some with bloated bellies, others thin and pale for lack of proper nutrition but who smilingly bring themselves to school. For most school is the only way out of poverty but the schools are themselves poor in facilities, poor in the number of teachers available, poor in almost anything except dreams.
Poverty in our public transport system and infrastructures. The MRT-LRT mode of mass transport, now an object of controversy, is millions of miles ahead of the ubiquitous jeepneys, buses, vans, pedicabs and tricycles in the provinces or poorer sections of the cities (which are more than other sections) in terms of time-saving efficiency. And yet the present MRT-LRT systems, despite the government subsidy and fare hike supporting them, are like sick tubercular patients compared to similar systems in ASEAN countries alone. Neighbors such as Singapore and Malaysia readily shame us with their modern, well-maintained, slick, fast, dependable, efficient and numerous mass transport trains and buses. And don’t forget the roads. While other countries have already eight-or-more-lane highways we still traverse constricted four-lane ones (at the most). In my province of Eastern Samar where funds from the United States (obtained during the first U.S. visit of the present administration) have passed through layers and layers of contractors and sub-contractors, we are seeing only two-lane highways whose quality is so highly suspect, even sans an engineering degree to support the observation, that they are a far cry from the “world-class highways” promised by the benefactors.
Poverty in our sense of public order and discipline. The chaos in the daily traffic conditions of our cities and even of our big towns are a statement of the poverty of the Filipino sense of discipline and order. Despite heroic efforts by public authorities and well-meaning citizens the problem is nowhere near a solution except perhaps temporarily through huge doses of patience and humor. Even the concept of sharing a ride or car-pooling among friends and fellow workers has not caught up with the rest of the population. The Filipino penchant for quick fixes through various “palusot” modes often result in more prolonged sacrifices for the many. The recent scandals related to the prisoners’ continuing criminal lifestyles inside the walls that should have checked them in the first place is yet another illustration of our dire moral poverty.
Poverty in our appreciation of the precariousness of the environment and the perils of climate change. I believe this one is the twin brother of the poverty of our sense of order and discipline. Despite two horrific, catastrophic super typhoons many Filipinos, especially in the cities and poverty-stricken provinces, continue to pollute the land, sea and air with garbage and careless use of fossil fuels. Many rural poor as well as big companies continue to denude the already denuded forests by legal and illegal logging even if, as in the case of my hometown, Borongan, Eastern Samar, the ill effects of legal logging long-ago forgotten are still being felt, thanks to Super Typhoon Ruby’s flash floodings, with scores of logs accompanying the raging waters.
I could go on. Or perhaps you could. All we have been saying here is that this Year of the Poor is not only about one face of poverty in our islands. We would be utterly in the wrong if we looked only at our massive material poverty and missed our moral-spiritual poverty that is at its root.
Earlier I asked if we have ever, and truly, listened to Isaiah the prophet as a nation. Perhaps it is too much to ask a nation wont to celebrating even while grieving, wont to forgetting its own history of rising and falling, as to why, how or where we are going.
Or perhaps we have been listening too much to prophets and their words that comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Perhaps we need to simply act and obey what we hear. It is time to “observe what is right” and “to do what is just” so that the “salvation” long-ago announced may finally overtake our Filipino steps.