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Saturday, December 29, 2007

A Pope Appeals

GLIMPSES by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Pope Benedict XVI gave his Christmas message – which asked mankind in general and Catholics in particular to give more attention to God and the poor. In other words, the Pope appealed for compliance to the very foundation of the Christian faith – to love God and to love neighbor.

The Pope's Christmas message was for everyone, but it seemed to have a special aim for Catholics in the Philippines – long the historical pride of the Church as the only Christian country in Asia. What the Pope said seems to be a swipe at the failure of the Catholic Church in the Philippines to make Catholic teachings the anchor of religious belief and the criteria of Catholic behavior. After all, what Pope or Church hierarchy could miss the status of the Philippines as one of the most corrupt and impoverished?

The role of the Catholic Church, and the role of Christian churches or sects that followed in the 20th century, in Philippine history points to one which almost equaled the role of the Spanish and American colonial regimes in power and influence. Many periods in our colonial history show that the Church could dictate to the State. It all depended on the Church's influence over the monarch in Spain or the governor general in the Philippines.

As a favored, if not revered, ally of colonization, the Church was naturally blessed with a shared wealth, or loot in today's perspective. It did not really matter much to Filipinos whether the Church was a beneficiary of Spain's wealth or resources. The fact, however, points to the Church as a primary beneficiary of the wealth or resources of the islands now known as the Philippines. Conquest made the extraction of that wealth legal for the conqueror. History simply calls it plunder.

Catholicism as been claimed as the greatest gift of colonial Spain to the Filipino. It may be so, but quite debatable. Without Spain, Catholicism may have found other opportunities to enter the Philippines and the Filipino' hearts and minds. But history being what it is, unchangeable despite its intermittent horrors, Catholicism was brought to the Philippines by Spain. And with Catholicism came the Catholic Church, or is it the other way around?

Appealing for more attention to God and the poor cannot be a more pointed appeal to the Catholic Church in the Philippines and its converts. After all, the evil of corruption that dominates Philippine society reflects the absence of God, as evil is understood to be the absence of good. The massiveness of poverty among our people reflects as well the absence of love for neighbor. In Asia's original and primary Christian country, the absence of good and the absence of love for one's neighbor have become its greatest achievements. Truly, the Pope's appeal cannot be more meaningful and pointed than it is for Christianity in the Philippines.

Christian Philippines is not only corrupt or host of tens of millions of poor people, it is also constantly haunted by the specter of hunger. In Metro Manila where the headquarters of the Catholic Church is located, one out of five residents experiences involuntary hunger. The backdrop of a country naturally or divinely blessed with natural resources and beauty that has few rivals in the world, with a religion that preaches love of God and neighbor as its greatest commandments, makes it more grotesque for the Philippines to be one of the most corrupt and one of the most impoverished.

The failure of government is shared by the failure of the Church, or maybe even more the failure of the Church than the government. If a census is undertaken, it may show that people in government are predominantly Christian. As such, corrupt as government may be, poor as millions of Filipinos may be, Christians or Catholics who dominate society simply display their utter failure to be faithful to their faith. It can be said as well that ones who formed them in their faith, the Church and their parents, failed to be effective teachers.

Have more time for God, the Pope says. It may be shocking for him to realize that enough time for God is being claimed by Catholics and other Christians who pray, who read the Bible, who attend religious rituals. Somehow, what they may miss, or what some in the hierarchy of the Church miss to emphasize, is that prayer, Scripture-reading and performance of rituals is not the equivalent of loving God, not in themselves. There is a factor that is missing, a crucial factor, an integral factor to loving God – and that is loving neighbor.

The hollowness of belief without love is an accepted fact, especially so when that truism is considered to be a sacred, and therefore, official dogma. Yet, corruption and poverty, accompanied by conflict and violence, are stark manifestations of the absence of love. Never mind that public officials who wield power swear and other to serve the people within strict moral guidelines renege on their word. They only show they are not people of honor. But they also renege on the fundamental tenets of their religion and are not people of faith.

It is necessary to face an honest mirror like the only in fairy tales, the mirror which does not lie. We have to see ourselves the way we have been, the way we are, so we can begin the struggle to be the way we ought to be. We cannot be people of the lie who believe we are good when we are not, who believe we are right when we are not, who believe we are Christians when we are not – or not yet. We are what we are, people of a country that is cursed by corruption, poverty and conflict – all antitheses of love.

Pay more attention to God and the poor means to pay more attention to loving. The primordial challenge for Filipinos is to love, to be one with God and to be one with one another. That is what love means – to be one. In governance, adopt the way of the servant leader, of the Lord who knelt to wash the feet of His disciples. In economics, adopt the ways of the early Christian communities where members shared everything with one another. In conflict, resolve differences with fraternal love and then remain one.

It is a joy to pray and commune with God, but it is a struggle to love our neighbor, especially the poor. We try, we fall, and now we must try again, harder, more determined, more intelligently, and make the New Year of 2008 a new beginning for decency and generosity in our society.***

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