Monday, January 22, 2007

Drive for excellence

MY eldest sister, a former mayor now working for a government agency, dropped by recently. It’s not often that we see each other. She’s in Imperial Manila, while I’m here in far-flung Cebu.

We move in different circles, swim in different seas. With the cell phone, there’s even less reason for us to meet. I suppose she came to check on how I was.

Whenever she’s around, I have to gird myself for a marathon talk. She’s really not a teacher, but she likes to “lecture” to his little brother. I’m afraid I will always be that to her sisterly heart, which happens to be just fine with me.

I understand her well. With her children and grandchildren, she’s very sweet and likes to play the problem-solver and redeemer. With her constituents, she is a mother who likes to make sacrifices. And she does all these so well that I think she can qualify for sainthood.

It’s when she’s with us, her siblings, that her dominating self just can’t be contained. Her natural character is to lead. She was born a boss, a genuine genetic phenomenon.

Now with our parents gone, she likes playing father and mother to us. We follow her orders without question. Woe to any of us who dares to challenge her!

And since I’m trained to look interested to any talker, all the more she talks. A spitfire, she never runs out of ideas. She has no problem verbalizing her thoughts. I have to listen double-time.

I know her too well to ever dare to disagree. Silence, smiling, dancing attendance on her are definitely more advantageous than otherwise. I admit I both enjoy and suffer her company. But I’m game.

Truth is in spite of her strong character, I always manage to pick some interesting tidbits, pearls cast before swines. So if you wonder where I get some of my ideas for my columns, I think I can point to her as one of my sources.

In her last visit, she was raving about her pet project, a so-called Festival of Excellence. She complained why some of us could be so afflicted with a crab mentality that we cannot see anything good in others.

We, as a people, she said, should have an abiding sense of national identity and dignity, built upon our rich culture and beautiful traditions that certainly need to be purified, improved and developed as we go along.

We should always highlight those traits where we excel. She mentioned things like hospitality, a ‘bayanihan’ spirit, willingness to make sacrifices, our strong family values, etc.

She said that we should develop these traits until they become self-perpetuating and self-renewing, self-improving and able to branch out to other good traits.

At this point, I wondered where she had been these past years. Isn’t this woman my sister? Where did she get all these? I corrected myself when I realized I was thinking like the unbelieving town mates of Jesus.

And as if to show that she was still in touch with the real world, she also talked about what she considered as our weaknesses as a people. But she hastened to say that these weaknesses are actually parasites.

They don’t have an existence of their own, she said. They always live and feed on a host that is not healthy and strong. They are notoriously opportunistic that should not be allowed to harden in our way of life.

Thus, she happily concluded, we should always stress our sources of pride and excellence. We should know who we are and what we want to be without getting lost in today’s confused world, she said.

Well, not bad, I thought. So I told her that if she pursues that project wholeheartedly without being stained by partisan politics, it might be a success one day. She agreed vigorously, and ordered me to pray for it.

Even in requesting for prayers, she commands. That’s my sister. In the end,
she never fails me to give candies and chocolates and a hug. And all is well once again.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Church and elections

NOW that we are in the Year of Social Concerns, and also that we will be
having elections this year, it seems but proper that we make some proactive, not reactive, effort to both humanize and Christianize this political exercise.

Sad to say, our elections have gone to the dogs, consistently being accompanied by ugly cohorts like cheating, bribing, killing, violence, etc., leading us to a black hole of hideous social ills.

We still fail to break the vicious cycle of poverty, injustice, violence, etc. on the one hand, and all sorts of political shenanigans, on the other. Is this task impossible? Difficult, definitely. But impossible?

This is, of course, an enormous challenge, requiring heroic efforts and sacrifices and gargantuan resources, but we can always start now and build on what we have accomplished so far as we move along in our national life.

We should try to avoid hasty, shallow and dangerous improvisations, amateurism, and ad hocism that should not sit well with us after so many years of nightmarish experiences regarding elections.

The Church hierarchy and clergy should not just confine themselves to ceremonial acts and post-mortem complaining and lamenting. In terms of the pertinent catechesis alone, a lot need to be done. And there are many other things that can and ought to be done, before, during and after the elections.

For example, what to tell or remind our politicians and candidates about with respect to the conduct of the campaign and election; what to tell the electorate, the public officials involved in the exercise, etc., etc., should be very interesting and necessary.

What issues to address, what platforms and programs of government would be appropriate, can be discussed, ventilated and debated upon by the different sectors with some guidelines given by Church authorities.

Our Church leaders should think of a comprehensive plan to tackle this important social concern, and spark to life the appropriate machinery and network to carry out this indispensable ministry. This should be an affair.

This is, of course, not a show of power on the part of the Church, nor to compromise the true nature and purpose of the Church, which is religious, and as such is predominantly spiritual and supernatural in character. This is not to come out with supposedly exclusive Catholic positions in political issues.

This is rather to make sure that our earthly and temporal affairs conform to our proper religious end, inspiring them with true Christian spirit and doing so by carefully respecting the legitimate autonomy which these human affairs by their nature possess, and the plurality of moral positions they can spawn.

Thus, it can be immediately seen that the main protagonists of this exercise would be the lay faithful insofar as they are also responsible citizens of the country. The clergy take more on the guiding and inspiring role, which is no trivial matter.

Care should be taken to avoid falling into clericalism, a monstrous mongrel, bastard and hybrid between religion and politics, the Church and state. Thus, everyone—clergy, religious and lay—should be taught about what he or she can do and not do with respect to the election and to anything political.

In this regard, not only the diocesan and parochial offices can be used, but also the mass media. These offer greater reach and scope. Pope John Paul II called them the modern Areopagus, precisely for this reason.

Over the years, many initiatives in this direction have already been made. On the whole, they are good and useful. But some clarifications, corrections and polishing need to be done. And, certainly, further development.

It cannot be denied that there had been irregularities, outright mistakes and frontal violations to the authentic nature and purpose of the Church. Meddling by Church officials in political affairs had unfortunately happened.

The elections can be a wonderful occasion for all of us to go deep and deeper into the social doctrine of the Church, which is becoming more relevant as we grow as nation. In fact, it’s a crying need today!

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The business of renewal

THE New Year certainly evokes the idea of a new beginning. However else we may think of the first day of the year, it is undeniable that with it we think we are beginning again.

But this business of having to begin and begin again, highlighted by the New Year’s Day, should make us more aware of the deeper importance of this task. It should remind us of our duty to renew ourselves.

Truth is we need to renew ourselves deeply and thoroughly, not only superficially and partially! This should not just be an idea, a slogan or a routine. It has to be an all-embracing program of life and a functional life-long strategy.

To begin again is not just a matter of course. That is to say, remove the hype that accompanies it, there is really nothing in it. To begin again is a grave human necessity that springs not only from our nature but also from our belief that we are meant for a supernatural destination.

Yes, dearie and sweetie, that’s just how the cookie crumbles in our life and world. Physically and externally, we may not be able avoid the effects of time and the onslaught of old-age. But deep within us, there is something that’s supposed not to age and die.

That is the reason for this business of ours to begin and begin again. We are supposed to prepare ourselves in this life for that leap to eternal life. With every new beginning, it’s like we’re making another winding of our earthly spiral to catapult us to eternity.

For this, we have to understand that what is involved is not just purely human and natural things. What is involved is the renewal of our soul, that it conforms more and more to its spiritual nature and supernatural end. That is to say that our renewal should not just be cosmetic, skin-deep, pegged, nailed and tacked to external appearances and earthly things only. It has to plumb the depths of our heart.

Our heart should not be dominated only by the material and temporal. It has
to be liberated from these confinements, and made to freely beat its proper lifeblood.

And that’s none other than God. Its proper language is love, it is self-giving, the one Christ lived and commanded us to do. It is not self-centeredness or greed. It is giving of oneself.

Its food is the truth, ultimately found in doing the will of God, again as Christ said and fulfilled especially with his death on the Cross. “My food is to do will of him who sent me.” (Jn 4,34)

In short, to achieve our goal of loving God truly, we have to understand that his means that our freedom is fully expressed only when lived in obedience to God’s will, when our freedom is so tied to our obedience to God that both mean the same thing to us.

This is the purpose of our continuing renewal in this life. For Christian believers, to pursue this renewal outside of this context would be foolishness and a pure waste of time.

Many New Years will come our way, bringing in things big and small, new and old. Whatever combination of things each new year may bring, we should not forget the real purpose of this cycle. It is to bring about another renewal, a winding of that spiral that launches us to eternal supernatural life with God.

And this renewal cannot be stopped even by our own sins, failures and mistakes, which can be expected to come. Our Father God is endlessly merciful, and as long as we play the prodigal son always, we can expect God’s mercy to be given to us. It is his joy to do this.

On our part, we should realize then that our own failures and mistakes, our
weaknesses and difficulties need not separate us from God. They precisely can be the occasion to bring us closer to him, in a way that is even more intimate since we would be asking for his help and his forgiveness.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Popular piety as unifying tool

DEVOTION to the Santo Nino is happily widespread in our country. Wherever we
go, we always see forms of this devotion acted out usually by our simple folks. I must say that this is a tremendous asset we have.

Aside from this, we also give popular cult to Our Lady, St. Joseph, the saints, and even our dead. I believe that it is in these spontaneous pious exercises that our soul as a people can truly be seen. We are fortunately a deeply believing people.

We don’t merely stop at the level of the sensible, the earthly and temporal. We don’t simply rely on the practical, the intelligible and reasonable. We go beyond these dimensions, and enter into the world of faith, developing a piety to go with it.

Thus, thanks to God, we Filipinos possess a deep treasury of piety which we live not only in a personal capacity, but also in a social and popular way. I believe this is a great blessing that helps to keep us one and united as a people in spite of our divisive shortcomings.

It is also for this reason that I would dare to say that if we really want to resolve our unavoidable differences and conflicts as we look, as a nation, for our progress and development, we should purify and strengthen our faith and piety.

I believe this is where we can find those ultimate unifying elements we need as a country, even as we consider different options, conflicting views and positions in our inescapable temporal affairs like our business and politics.

I don’t believe this claim is baseless. I’ve seen it heavily validated by experience. I’ve witnessed many instances when clashes are softened and even agreements and reconciliations reached as long as parties and people pray.

I’ve met people who, even if their defects seem be more than their virtues, manage to make progress simply because they pray a lot. I’ve also met people who, because they don’t pray, cannot help but create problems even when there should be none.

I believe that the many forms of popular piety we have are a manifestation of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They amply capture our people’s deepest yearnings, anxieties and concerns. They become a powerful prayer linking us with God.

But, yet, it cannot be denied that they need to be purified, regulated and strengthened. We need to find out if they properly inculturate the faith. That’s a very delicate task, needing profound and comprehensive study and keen discernment.

They have to be purified from superstitious elements and the illicit sense of magic that somehow manages to seep in and distort them. These things are like parasites that spoil otherwise good developments in our collective spiritual life.

Popular piety should also be properly focused and made to grow to maturity, freeing them from the tendency to shallow sentimentalism and self-seeking aims and self-serving maneuvers.

They have to be soundly grounded on doctrine and adequately regulated by competent Church authorities. These days, they should help us in tackling our social concerns properly.

Thus, there is a great need for some systematic plan of catechesis. Forms of popular piety should improve not only our relation with God, but also our relation among ourselves, which can be seen and measured in concrete terms.

Also, that delicate task of harmonizing popular piety with the Church’s entire liturgical life should be undertaken. This should pose as a real challenge to the competence of our Church’s authorities.

Someone has told me, rather lightheartedly, that we Pinoys don’t really have serious doctrinal problems. Our problems are more of the disciplinary kind. We tend to get wild and unruly as well as too sentimental and passionate for law and order to take full effect.

Just the same I believe there has to be a more systematic plan to deepen the doctrinal formation of the faithful, whether of the simple or the sophisticated type, especially these days when good and bad elements come together in society.

This should be done in the field of popular piety.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Christian materialism

“WE can therefore rightly speak of a Christian materialism, which is boldly opposed to those materialisms which are blind to the spirit.”

These were words of St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, in a 1967
homily. They are most relevant today as more people ask if it’s possible for us to be “spiritual” in our material world.

In defending that point, St. Josemaria said:

“What are the sacraments, which people in early times described as the footprints of the Incarnate Word, if not the clearest expression of this way which God has chosen in order to sanctify us and to lead us to heaven?”

In Christian belief, the material and the spiritual are not incompatible and need not be in conflict, since both come from God. Whatever deformity matter has absorbed because of our sin, Christ has purified it with his death and resurrection.

Besides, since the material world is part of man’s life, Christ has made it as man’s instrument not only for his human needs, but most especially for his spiritual needs and supernatural calling.

More from St. Josemaria:

“There is only one life, made of flesh and spirit. And it is that life which has to become, in both body and soul, holy and filled with God. We discover the invisible God in the most visible and material things…

“Our age needs to give back to matter and to the apparently trivial events of life their noble, original meaning…It needs to spiritualize them, turning them into a means and an occasion for a continuous meeting with Jesus Christ.”

With these words, millions of people all over the world have suddenly discovered a deeper meaning in their material, temporal affairs, including the little things of everyday. They are not just realities confined to a strictly material world.

St. Josemaria described it this way:

“When a Christian carries out with love the most insignificant everyday action, that action overflows with the transcendence of God…

“The Christian vocation consists in making heroic verse out of the prose of each day. Heaven and earth seem to merge on the horizon. But where they really meet is in your hearts, when you sanctify your everyday live…”

We all need to develop an authentic spirituality that has a correct understanding of the material dimension of our life. It should be a spirituality that respects the nature and autonomous ways of the material world.

The dilemma faced by many before was either to be spiritual or to be material. The schools of spirituality in the past often had an exaggerated negative attitude towards the material world. These two aspects made war with each other.

History is witness to tendencies that erroneously veered toward one extreme to the other, toward being too spiritualistic or too materialistic.

Among the too spiritualistic are Manicheans who held matter to be intrinsically evil; the Puritans who practiced scrupulous moral rigor hostile to social pleasures; the Stoics who were indifferent to joy, grief, pleasure and pain. They lived much by themselves.

You also have the quietists who lived a mysticism involving passive contemplation and destruction of the will; the rationalists who used reason as prime source of knowledge, rejecting empirical data, authority and faith.

Among the too materialistic are the atheists, communists and socialists. hey generally believe that reality is purely material. There’s nothing spiritual or supernatural.

You also have the hedonists and Epicureans who held that sensual pleasure
is the greatest good. There’s also the naturalist who said everything can be explained by nature alone and nothing beyond that.

We have a crying need for a spirituality that embodies a sense of Christian
materialism. It should be a spirituality that has a healthy love for the world and everything the world contains.

It should be a spirituality that gives Christian value to the different fields of work—intellectual or manual, in business, politics, academic, etc. It should incorporate properly the Church’s social doctrine.

It’s a spirituality that helps one live a greater unity of life, extending
the coverage of his spiritual life to include everything.