Friday, December 28, 2007

Hope is cool

“SPE salvi,” is the title of the second encyclical of Pope Benedict issued last November 30. It’s lifted from St. Paul’s “In hope we were saved.” (Rom 8,24)

After his first encyclical on charity, “Deus caritas est,” comes this magisterial treatise on hope. If the pattern continues, his third should be on faith.

The Pope seems intent in popularizing these three crucial virtues, lowering
them from the ivory tower. Also called theological virtues, as distinct from human virtues, they have God, rather than us, as primary object.

We need them to live the supernatural life, our life with God. In Christian belief, that’s what our life ought to be.

These theological virtues, God’s gifts first before being products of our efforts, attest to God’s grace in us. As such they serve as the source and goal of our human virtues like prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, etc.

In fact, the human virtues are confirmed authentic only when they are inspired by these theological virtues. Otherwise, they just appear as virtues, not the real McCoy.

Our crying need today is to realize how our life is made supernatural by the practice of these theological virtues. With these virtues, we can expect better consistency in our Christian life, whether in the personal or social aspect, material or spiritual.

In this new encyclical, the Pope wants us to develop theological hope with God’s grace and our all-out effort. This is hoping in God, and not in some idols like money, power, popularity, etc., that we tend to create.

This is the hope that does not frustrate nor defraud us. Based and animated
by our firm faith in the living God, this hope is no rip-off, no bluff. It’s no phantom of our intelligence.

It brings God to us, the future to the present, eternal value to our temporal affairs. It gives us serenity amid trials. It makes us persevere in our struggles, enabling us to renew ourselves as often as needed.

Faith and charity form the proper orbit for hope to develop. Straying from
this orbit, hope weakens and can die. Or it can devise escape mechanisms by
concocting false hopes.

This is what we see aplenty these days. On one side, many people are losing hope, sinking into discouragement, depression and despair. The growing number of mental cases and aberrant behavior worldwide attest to this observation.

On the other, we have many people creating complex webs of theories and ideologies to prop them. If not inspired by God, these things can only spawn injustice, coercion, deceit, hidden worries, etc.

Sooner or later, their errors or fallacies show, dooming their systems. Their doctrines cannot explain away our ultimate problems—our natural limitations and, worse, sin and evil in all its forms, and death.

In this encyclical, Pope Benedict explains the nature, characteristics and dynamics of Christian hope. He also tells us how to develop it insofar as it depends on us.

In it, the Holy Spirit in a way speaks to us in vintage Ratzinger style—a richly textured analysis using many brilliant threads of Scripture, tradition and magisterium, theology and philosophy, history and culture, even anecdotes. It’s simply breathtaking!

It reminds us strongly of basic truths. God began something good in us, and
is bent, no matter how much we spoil his plans, in consummating it. We have reason to be optimistic, patient, cheerful. It dissolves anxieties.

We are beings created and outfitted to hope, because we always long for something which always transcends what we can find here. Thus, hope springs eternal. It leads us to eternal life with God, ultimately hope’s only proper object.

This hope is not merely “informative” but “performative,” terms the Pope
used to distinguish between intellectual hope and a life-changing one. Hope involves action, not passivity.

It’s not individualistic, not only personal hope, but also social. It’s a hope that truly saves us. I invite my readers to read this document.

Now that everyone wants to be “cool,” please know that the real secret to being “cool” is when we live this unfailing virtue of hope. This is no mere makeover, dude!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Prophets or troublemakers?

I’D SAY to my friends and brothers in the clergy who figure prominently in some political issues lately to relax and take it easy. You’ve been causing distress, confusion if not scandal among the people.

Even young students in a technical school came to me to ask bluntly if these clerics were acting as prophets or as plain troublemakers fired up by some nasty bitter zeal.

I was happy to note that they appeared to have an understanding that priests carry out a prophetic or teaching mission in the Church. This is not common even among the professionals.

They’d been studying the catechism, bless their souls, and must have read about the role of priests in the Church and in the world. I learned later that they were studying the Church’s social doctrine.

It was not easy for me to explain, especially if you want to pair truth and charity together. And also to control surging emotions on the heels of some controversial clerical actuations and pronouncements.

Truth is these young ones have a point in asking and in expressing some discomfort. There is a growing perception that some clerics are abusing their position to get entangled in issues so complex they are at least debatable yet.

Aggravating this is the fact that these clerics have become media creatures playing media games.

Definitely we have a problem. Something has to be done. I hope some clear
indications from Church authorities can be made about this matter that is not anymore funny and is dragging stupidly.

One complained that the words and actions of the clerics did not correspond
to their dignity and neither were they proportionate to the gravity of the issues involved.

“They were shouting, and painting the targets of their complaints as if these were the devils themselves, incapable of doing any good thing,” he said. “It was just too simplistic, too one-sided, too opinionated.”

“I may agree with them in some points or give them the benefit of the doubt,” he continued, “but these do not entitle them to act the way they did. They were so self-righteous.”

I held my peace, waiting for an opening. I did not like to hear these words. But I was already amazed at how this 17-year-old, practically still a child, could already talk about serious matters.

Another student butted in to say that he was afraid the clerics involved might cause division among the people.

“Though they were saying they were doing those things on their own personal capacity as citizens, they acted and spoke as priests and bishops, just the same,” he said.

“They were even quoting Church doctrine which sounded out of context to
me,” he continued. “They sounded more like mother statements! Those who don’t agree with them in these issues, and with good valid reasons, would feel alienated from the Church.”

“Besides,” another one spoke, “there are clerics with clearly loose tongues who want to comment on just about any political issue. They only show their political leanings. It does not look good.”

I just told them to keep their views to themselves as much as possible. It’s not good to talk about them openly. I asked them to pray, and to understand that clerics—bishops especially—have a most delicate task of reading the signs of the times. That, I told them, explains part of their actuations.

These comments are actually quite widespread. No matter how I tried to avoid them, they just came, and continue to come, usually in tones of deep disappointment.

This matter ought to be studied thoroughly by our Church leaders to come up with more specific guidelines and corresponding legislations that should include appropriate sanctions.

I know that it would be much better if things are done in private and in confidence, away from the public eye. But if the actuations and pronouncements are made in public, I think the people are entitled to know whether something is wrong and if so, whether the correction is to be made.

This can very well be an SOS, before things really get out of hand.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Tower of Babel updated

IT’S obviously a Tower-of-Babel effect that many people nowadays, especially the young ones, are not aware anymore of the story, significance and unfailing relevance itself of the Tower of Babel.

We need to recall that story and, in fact, to familiarize ourselves with it since it’s a phenomenon that continues to affect us, especially as we march toward progress and development. It sure gives us a much-needed sense of prudence in life.

From the Bible’s first book, Genesis, we have this account of this story’s origin. The descendants of Noah decided after the flood to erect a tower in Babylonia. It was intended to reach heaven as a way to make them famous.

God was angered by this presumption, and caused among them a great confusion of languages before scattering them to different places.

The underlying reason for God’s action is that these men had the wrong understanding and intention in how to proceed with their life. They were more interested in themselves than in God, more in their plans than in God’s will.

The story is now the image of any human effort to pursue development without God or even in competition with God. Together with some signs of progress will be an accompanying state of confusion among the people. We can
call this the Tower-of-Babel syndrome, a cruel curveball.

It springs from ignoring the fundamental truth that everything comes from God, and therefore should be handled and used always in accordance to God’s will. It’s actually a ridiculous state of affairs, and yet it’s what commonly happens.

With it, we will get the sensation we are advancing in knowledge, skills and dominion over the world, but we cannot deny either that together with these gains, pursued without God, is a clear distancing we can notice among ourselves.

We can be close to one another physically, yet still far and remote spiritually and morally. We are not referring here to the legitimate differences we can have among ourselves, but rather to an abiding sense of alienation among us.

It’s a story that continues to be played and replayed even up to now. Not even our great strides in our communication technology have increased our communion among ourselves.

On the contrary, what we notice nowadays is greater misunderstanding, envy and even conflict and division. There is widespread distrust and easy, almost automatic mutual suspicion.

Part of the concern we have to tackle is precisely to hitch our development process to God’s plans. It is to inspire, leaven and drive it with God’s truth and spirit.

This is not easy to do, of course. Our tendency is to misappropriate and misuse things that actually come and belong to God—all things do—to be simply our own.

We easily succumb to this vicious virus, plus, the fact that we also get easily intoxicated by any power we enjoy in life. With this potent combination of factors, we effectively have an epidemic of confusion. This is what we see around.

For example, our capacity to know, quite powerful given our intelligence and will, can tempt us to know things simply on our own. There’s hardly any effort to relate such knowledge to God.

This really looks funny, because we fail to realize the basic truth once eloquently spelled out by St. Paul when he talked about knowledge and charity.

“Knowledge puffs up, but charity edifies. And if any man thinks that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know.” (1 Cor 8,1-2)

As a result, we cannot help but get into useless quarrels among ourselves. We have to be most careful of this fine distinction.

While the pursuit of knowledge unleavened by charity can yield some material gains, it can also sow the seeds of discord among us. It will just be a matter of time before things explode.

We need to strongly remind ourselves that in every affair or concern in our life, in every step of the way, we need to refer everything to God and to his plans. Otherwise, we’ll just be building our own version of the Tower of Babel. Let’s stop acting funny!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Cultivating the Christmas spirit

AGAIN it’s Christmastime, which, Pinoy style, starts way earlier and ends much later than what the Church calendar says, and expresses itself more elaborately than liturgically indicated.

I don’t know whether it’s age catching up or due to external causes that I don’t seem to notice much Christmas décor around nowadays and to feel that palpable excitement I as a kid used to pair the season with.

I remember suggesting to the janitor to put new decors in my office, since I’ve been seeing the same ones for years now. He told me that they may look old to me but they all appear new and beautiful to the new students.

Rather than arguing, I chose to be happy with that smart reply, actually a cover for some budgetary limits. I just have to find a way to make the old look new. Problem is I’m creativity challenged in this area.

Anyway, I felt high when the other day a priest-friend, who has a raging passion and with matching skills for making Christmas crèches, showed me his latest version.

It’s a very beautiful “belen” done in cool architectural artistry and landscaping, with playing fountains and dancing lights, with angels floating on air, and together with the usual cows and sheep, little pet dogs and cats accompany Mary and Joseph to adore the infant Jesus.

All of a sudden, I became a kid again, launched in a sparkling flight into the world of Christian mysteries, but still inflated by childish fantasies. Then I remember the duty we all have every time Christmastime comes around.

The Christmas story is actually a very beautiful story worth repeating endless times. Of course, each time it is considered, we are meant to plumb deeper into its significance and relevance, and to incarnate the lessons.

The Christmas story is about God who loves us so much that he sends his own Son to be like us to save us. And the Son’s work of our redemption is the best that any attempt at saving anyone or anything can ever be.

For the redemption Jesus does is not simply personal but also social, not only material but also spiritual, not only in the human level but also in the supernatural level. It’s a redemption complete, total, and forever. He gives us the fullness of life.

This is all because we are God’s children, created in his image and likeness, and meant to participate in God our Father’s supernatural life. But in achieving that, our redemption presumes the fulfillment also of our human potentials.

We cannot fully attain our supernatural goal without being fully human. Of
course, what is to be fully human is something not quite easy to know, since it is part of the mystery of Jesus’ life. We have to continually deal with our Lord to get insights of this mystery.

In other words, Christmas is a reminder that Christ wants to be born not only in the world, but also in the heart of each one of us. He wants to take hold of us, of course, with our cooperation, in order to reconstitute us, since we have been deformed by our sins.

He wants to be born and to live in our mind, our heart and even in our body. He wants to be in our thoughts, desires, feelings, words and deeds. He wants us to make us like him, precisely to recover God’s image and likeness in us.

The true spirit of Christmas can only take place when we allow our Lord to be truly born in us. This requires tremendous effort and the full exercise of our freedom. This is because Christ cannot enter into our life if we don’t want him.

And wanting him is not just a matter of feeling and desire. It has to involve the whole of us: our mind, heart, body and everything else.

Thus, Christmas invites us to make our faith more and more theological, and to incarnate that theological faith in our life. Every time Christmas comes, we need to make a step further in this direction, such that with St. Paul we can say: “It is no longer I who lives but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal 2,20)

Monday, December 10, 2007

Charity averts tragedy

THOUGH given permission, I obviously have to fictionalize and modify the characters and stories involved in this piece since the details are delicate. But most of them are true and, I think, good for others to know.

Antonio is a young fellow in his early twenties who works in a technical
school for less privileged boys. That alone speaks volumes of the guy.

He has almost everything: great looks and keen brains, very athletic and talented. I’m sure many would like him as their son-in-law. He works hard, is reliable in any weather, and damn honest to the bones.

He exudes the quiet air of a gentleman, what you call one with breeding. But he actually has a hard life. Though the parents are still alive, he practically lived as an orphan. Hunger and all sorts of difficulties accompanied him since birth.

His survival and success are due to his heart, his real treasure, which gave no shelter to any trace of evil, resentment and self-pity. I’m sure it was God’s grace that shielded him.

He personifies the triumph of the spirit over the flesh. In spite of the hardships, including the moral ones, he paid attention only to the charity and kindness given him by others. He disregarded the rest.

As a result, he learned only to live by charity and to give charity, immunizing himself to any tragic possibility. He disproved many popular theories in psychology and sociology.

He reminds me of another young man I met some years ago who died young. Fernando came from what you may call a dirt-poor family. But he had a mind of a genius and super-calm temperament.

I learned a lot from him. He showed me the ways of handling life-and-death
situations. Up to now I use his ideas to lift the drooping spirits of poor kids I talk to, and the results are always successful.

The phenomenon of Fernando was that in spite of his harsh background, he
finished college “summa cum laude” and topped an engineering board. But he
was always humble and unassuming. To me he’s both a hero and a saint.

I thanked God profusely for getting to know Fernando and prayed even more profusely for Him to make more Fernandos. We just seem to have a boundless ocean of poor kids around needing help.

Anyway, back to Antonio, the other day he approached me a little distressed. He said that since he just earned his engineering degree and has passed the board, he was thinking of working in some big companies.

He needed money. His parents are sick and his siblings—he is the youngest—cannot help. In fact, they need help. So he started applying. I know he would have no problem getting a job. Many people would like to get him immediately.

But in one company, the one he preferred, he was rejected. His application
as sales rep, he said, went fast and smooth. Until the last interview. To be more precise, until the last question of that last panel interview.

He was asked if he was willing to “go all the way.” Not knowing what they
exactly meant, he asked to be clarified and was told whether he was willing to dine and wine his clients, to offer girls and bribes to close a deal.

He did not hesitate to say, no, he was not willing. He said those were not necessary and there were many other ways to make a sale. The interviewers tried to change his mind, spending an hour for this. But it was still, no. So, he was rejected.

He’s back to applying again. I’m sure he’ll land a good job soon. But I can’t help thinking of the evil ways the world has become. Correction, evil men, because the world is not evil by itself. It is men who make it evil.

I hope and pray, even as I also make this heartfelt appeal, that these men change. There is no use for corruption at all to sell one’s products and to make a living.

We all need to be converted and to purify our hearts, conforming them to God. I’m sure this will go a long way to improve everybody’s lot. I’m sure this will lessen poverty and injustice and put us on the road to progress proper to us.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Beauty and the Mass

POPE Benedict XVI discusses the intrinsic relationship between beauty and the Holy Mass in his apostolic exhortation, “Sacramentum caritatis” (Sacrament of Love), referring to the Eucharist.

Given his powerful mind, the Pope gives a richly analytical as well as a cleverly synthesized treatment of the subject. It’s fascinating to see him weave with quiet ease and skill the data coming from Scripture, tradition and magisterium to make an irresistible presentation.

For sure, the Pope does not discuss this to show off his intellectual prowess. Gaping problems worldwide have to be tackled, even patent irregularities in the celebration of the Mass cry to be corrected. The Pope is out to confront all this, hopefully with the help of everyone.

Unregulated and illicit experimentations in the celebration of the Mass are
taking place, done in the name of all sorts of guises and excuses: inculturation, giving local flavor to the rites, etc. In the end, what’s clear is an individualistic mind behind all these.

These may be true in more developed if complicated countries. What are more locally happening are, for example, that the churches are not clean, the sacred vessels and vestments not in good condition, even the tabernacles are not regularly cleaned—all more in the area of laxity and laziness.

Security even for the Blessed Sacrament is not properly taken care of. Many people also complain about how some priests say Mass—that priests don’t look good, are lousily vested, or that they give the impression they are just going through some robotic routine, bereft of life.

The homilies are not well prepared, and often stray from what people think
is proper for the Mass. They find them shallow and dry, lacking in theological depth and pastoral forcefulness.

A lot of announcements and even scoldings are made through the homilies. If not these, then they resort to clowning and cheap play-acting.

We can go on and on. That’s why a continuing catechesis for everyone, clergy and laity, about what would constitute as proper and beautiful for the Mass is a must.

The Pope tells us beauty in the Mass is how we convert our belief in the sacrament into effective worship. Beauty is not merely a kind of aestheticism, but “the concrete way in which the truth of God’s love in Christ encounters us, attracts us and delights us,” leading us to love God and others.

Beauty in this case is more a sublime experience of exquisite communion with God, with his mind and will, that enables us to understand and be willing to go through all sorts of sacrifices. They are beauty’s necessary price.

It’s a beauty that certainly has material dimensions, but it resides more in the spiritual. It is not to be considered merely as a decoration but an essential element of the Mass, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation.

For the Pope, this beauty in the Mass in translated into action by the care we put in celebrating and in attending the Mass. With this effort, he is convinced the innate glow of the Mass simply radiates.

Obviously there are both external and internal elements involved here. Everyone should try his best to have the proper understanding of the sacrament and dispositions, to fulfill the requirements and to meet the standards.

All the external things have to be studied properly to insure their effectiveness in conveying the beauty of the Mass. These include Church architecture, paintings and sculpture, altar and reredo, songs, etc.

The celebration should strictly follow the rubrics to insure a smooth flow and clear interrelation among the different parts and to highlight their unity.

The consecration should be the summit of the Mass, while the reception and distribution of communion should be done in such a way that it shows it is a personal direct and intimate encounter one has with Christ.

Everyone should be constantly reminded about the meaning of each part of
the Mass and prodded to develop the appropriate attitudes and dispositions.

In this way, we can hope that the Mass is truly a glimpse of heaven on earth. This is its beauty.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The corruption of power

WE have been amply warned about this danger. Our Lord himself said: “You know that the princes of the Gentiles lord it over them, and they that are greater, exercise power upon them. It shall not be so among you. But whosoever will be the greater among you, let him be your minister. And he that will be first among you, shall be your servant.” (Mt 20,25-27)

We have to understand that any power that we have in this life is always a participation of God’s power. St. Paul said so: “There is no power but from God, and those that are, are ordained of God.” (Rom 13,1)

Though we are always free to use that power as truly our own, it would be very funny to use it as if it is entirely ours, without due reference to God, its source and purpose, and to the others for whom it is used.

And yet that is what we see around quite abundantly. Leaders, political and
even ecclesiastical, many times act out this “lording it over,” eager to dominate and control others, being bossy and even arrogant and insolent.

Because of this error, they open themselves to other irregularities: hypocrisy, greed, lust, envy, hatred, etc. Some even go to the extent of getting detached from reality and lapsing into insanity.

It’s truly painful to see someone who at the beginning of a political career appears meek and then morphs himself through years of wielding power into an insufferable monster, tinkering with morality and getting inured to rational twisting, grand lying, hatching plots and conspiracies.

It’s hard to understand why some leaders act in that ridiculous way. Of course, there are reasons. Like, they have been elected or appointed, have superior qualities, have been born lucky, etc. Outside pressures and temptations are never lacking.

But these cannot misrepresent the truth that any earthly power is from God and has to be used according to God’s will. One’s proper attitude toward power should be that of being a minister, a servant, not the author or owner, much less, a tyrant.

We have to find a continuing way of educating everyone about the nature and purpose of power. We have to actively inculcate the proper attitudes and dispositions, especially rectitude of intention.

We have to be aware that we are doing God’s work even as we pursue our earthly activities. These are not purely earthly as in being strictly politics. They can and should be part of God’s designs.

Aside from being competent, we need to be humble always, conscious that we are mere servants and instruments though vested with the dignity of being God’s children. We have to be prudent, more of the spirit than of the flesh and of the world.

We have to continually practice detachment, seeing to it that our heart is fully attuned to God’s will. We should not allow the many privileges and perks given to holders of power to spoil us.

We have to learn to distinguish in the course of using power between what is of absolute value that has to be upheld always, and what is of relative value that can be open to many interpretations and therefore should be respected even as we try to make a consensus.

Problems start when people fail to recognize the source and aim of power, and then develop the corresponding inappropriate attitudes and habits. Worse, without God and on our own, we tend to weave a web of deceit that eventually will incriminate us.

We cannot underestimate the many dangers that threaten the proper use of power. First, we have right now an environment filled with bad examples of how power ought to be used.

There also are serious efforts now to discredit the role of God and of Christian morality in the use of power. The religious dimension is often viewed as irrelevant, an unnecessary burden, a mere luxury that can be discarded anytime.

That’s why we have many reasons to embark on a systematic campaign to clarify the issue on the use of power. This is an urgent call of our times.