Friday, February 29, 2008

Our Christian identity

THE topic emerged in a recent get-together the Pope had with some priests of Rome . Someone, commenting on what the Pope said in another occasion about our Christian identity, asked:

“How can one propose to young people that the Christian ‘I’, once it puts on Christ, is no longer ‘I’ because there is the communal subject who is Christ?

“How does one propose, Your Holiness, this conversion, this new modality, this Christian originality of being a communion that effectively proposes the newness of the Christian experience?”

I thought the question is most relevant to us these days given our bishops’ call that we subordinate our personal good to the common good, and also their call for some communal action, given the current political controversy.

The Pope replied by saying that the question has to be asked everyday by everyone who realizes he is responsible for others. Then he went into some theologico-historical discussion of the point, very characteristic of him.

For us now we can ask the same question and see how we can effect this transformation of the ‘I’ into a Christian ‘I’ that has a strong communal character because we are supposed to have put on Christ already.

We cannot deny that this is one of our main problems. We seem to be Christians by name or by appearance only. We tend to be individualistic. We are not very consistent with our true Christian identity.

Obviously, this coherence in our Christian identity is a daily effort. It involves the interplay of God’s grace and our personal correspondence. It just cannot be frozen into some social, cultural or legal form. It has to be worked out and lived at every moment.

Much less is this Christian identity built up by transitory emotions and passions that happen to grip us because of some socio-political controversies. We as Christians have to know and behave better than that.

Our Christian identity, of course, is hitched on Christ’s identity and mission. Our ‘I’ should be in accordance with what St. Paul once said: “I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me.” (Gal 2,20)

We have to arrive at that point when we can say in all sincerity that we each are “another Christ, if not Christ himself” (alter Christus, ipse Christus)

Our thoughts, desires and feelings should be such that we become aware these are not only ours, but also Christ’s. And since they are Christ’s, then they should be lived with everyone else in mind. Love for God automatically entails love for others.

This is an ambitious goal, but not impossible. It’s both hard and easy.

In the first place, this is what Christ wants. Besides, we are given the means, and we have the capability. We are assured of God’s grace, we have Christ’s saving doctrine and the sacraments. And we have the freedom to assimilate and use them.

But we have to see to it that we are existentially connected with Christ. Our problem often is that this vital linkage is missing, and we just go on some automatic mode that show certain Christian forms absent the substantiating Christian spirit.

If that Christian spirit is truly present, any pursuit for truth will always be infused by charity, done in the spirit of meekness and humility, never confrontational, willing to suffer and even to die rather than create an agitated communal mess.

Everyone is looking for the truth, but if we are truly Christian, we also have a Christian way for doing that. This way was taught and lived by Christ himself, and is now taught and elaborated, attuned to our times, by the Church magisterium.

It’s mortifying to hear some of our Church leaders cackling in strident dissonance just because of a political issue. What kind of redemption are they working for?

The whole affair makes one wonder whether they have common sense or basic prudence, or are we already entering the end days when false prophets claiming to be Christ start appearing?

We have to start looking into the kind of formation and background of our leaders. Hopefully we won’t have a Pandora’s Box. Whatever, all of us have to help one another and do something about this bungle.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Fast and slow

EVERYONE knows that in life, one has to learn how to shift gears. We, more or less, have what we consider as our normal life speed and rhythm. But we also realize there are times we need to go faster, and times to go slower.

A variation to this is our need also to know when to get hot and when to get cold, when to act and move and when to study and reflect. As the Book of Ecclesiastes expresses it beautifully:

“All things have their season, and in their times all things pass under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die…” (3,1-2)

I just wish to reiterate and enlarge on what it says about “all things pass under heaven.”

To my mind, what it implies is that we should to get in touch with heaven, with God, that is, to pray always no matter what, so as to get the proper sense of timing for the different things that come our way and that we do.

This practice, which should develop into a skill and a permanent operative feature in life, is urgently needed these days as we can’t help but be dragged into the accelerating and dizzying pace of development.

Even our most indifferent, asocial bystander of our times is easily sucked into this whoosh of developments. And often with disastrous results, precisely because they don’t know for the most part what is happening. He just rides…for a fall.

We need to know when to go fast and when to go slow, when to get close and hot, and when to be distant to get a bigger view. For this, we need to pray to be able to connect the dots and get a better perspective.

With prayer we can get immersed in things, and yet transcend them, not imprisoned by them. When we pray, we can distinguish between the absolute and the relative values of things.

Prayer enhances, not restrains, our analyzing and synthesizing powers, affording us greater depth and scope. It enables us to conform our earthly affairs to our eternal destiny.

In this regard, we have to be wary of tendencies, specially pronounced in certain sectors, to badger us to act on instincts alone, if not on passions and anger. Prudence, reason, faith, patience and mercy take the back seat, if they get the chance at all.

When hot issues erupt in public, usually emanating from the world of politics and eagerly amplified in the media, we have to be very cautious. Our experience should abundantly teach us that outrage is hardly a reliable force to lead us to real progress.

Radical and lasting changes in our society don’t come in an instant, through things like “People Power”, coups, exposes, illegal changes of administration… Who are we kidding? Let’s stop playing na├»ve.

Genuine changes and transformations have to correspond to our true nature as a human person and to our dignity as a child of God. They cannot take place when that nature and dignity is sidelined to give way to so-called ideological and social imperatives of the moment.

When name-calling, coercion to extract the truth some like to hear, sweeping and reckless denunciations, out-of-the-legal tactics and other savage barbarities are resorted to, we should be alerted to be more discerning in prayer.

Remember Pilate asking Christ what truth is? He had the truth right before him, and that truth just kept quiet. When we don’t pray, we will miss the truth, or detach truth from charity. We become prone to mob mentality.

Evil forces and malicious designs have a clever way to look good, legit and popular. We have to be sober to sift things well. Let’s pray for our politicians, media people and all of us, so we avoid playing into the devil’s hands.

The road to development and progress is long, winding and narrow. The gate to perdition is wide, easy and enticing. Remember what our Lord said:

“Enter by the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life…” (Mt 7,13-14)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Morality now a matter of popularity?

I WAS quietly mortified to hear the arguments of a young Quezon City councilor who guested in a TV newscast recently, defending his council’s decision to approve birth control measures, now euphemized as a reproductive health city ordinance.

He said that the council was subjected to harsh pressures from Catholic Church officials. To make things worse, the lady anchor acted more like an over-the-top supporter for population control than an impartial interviewer. That’s foul!

There really has to be a more effective way to remind media practitioners to distinguish between straight news and what is already editorializing. Mixing these two kinds of information can easily mislead the unwary and disturb many others.

In this regard, I encourage media audiences to give instant feedback whenever they feel their right to know the truth objectively is violated or at least dangerously weakened.

We also have the right to know from the media their clearly articulated perspective, so we would know where they are coming from when commenting on issues. For the benefit of their audience, they have to draw the line from the start.

To the official’s credit, he appeared sober and guarded in his comments. But in his efforts to appear fair and balanced, he failed to realize a fundamental infirmity in his position.

There was no mention at all about morality. Or perhaps a better assessment is that morality is understood simply as anything that the majority of the people seem to approve. That’s just it, period!

In this frame of mind which, I’m afraid, is getting more widespread, morality is not anymore about the act’s object, the person’s intention and the circumstances. It’s just a matter of numbers, of convenience and practicality, of which side has more financial and political backing.

There also appears that glib but fallacious assumption, quite popular even among our leaders and officials, that in a democratic society, anything can be legalized as long as it has the people’s support. Morality is now democratized, floating on an ocean of opinions.

I didn’t have the chance nor do I have the intention now to check the religious background of the councilors and the anchorwoman, but I know that if they were Catholics, we have a deeper problem, replicating the ugly phenomenon prevailing in many so-called developed countries.

In these places, there is a kind of surge of self-styled Catholics, who detach themselves from Church authority and magisterium and who claim their conscience alone is their sole guide. It’s a primitive heresy that continues to deceive many of us.

Put bluntly, they make themselves their own God, deriving their strength from among their own selves. If they were educated in so-called Catholic schools, then we have a much bigger problem.

The Church usually does not interfere in the government’s policies, decisions and activities. It does so only when delicate matters of faith and morals are attacked or at least undermined.

Perhaps to the discredit of a few Church officials is their inability and awkwardness to defend the Church position on faith and morals in a rational and forceful way. This has to be corrected. They have to avoid high-handedness or the militants’ style of imposing the “truth” on others.

But I believe that even if they may not always win the popularity contest, they will never run out of good reasons and arguments to clarify and refute errant views. They have to be more creative in defending truth with charity.

Just the same, the picture this issue is presenting should remind Church officials of the enormity of the challenge to wage a sustained campaign of catechism and other forms of doctrinal-spiritual formation.

In fact, this should not just be a campaign, but an ongoing affair, much like our breathing and heartbeat, using both personal and collective means. The growing wall of ignorance and confusion is turning into a hostile force that is gathering vicious force.

Charity should always be lived in defending the truths of faith and morals. Evil in all its forms can only be drowned by an abundance of truth and of the good!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Education and our ‘fragile generations’

POPE Benedict has been talking lately about education. The subject seems to grab his concern. He is sensing an imminent danger lurking in that strategic field.

Of course, there was that unfortunate event when some university students and staff refused to receive him in their school in Rome. A clear case of misunderstanding, it could have been easily averted if cooler heads prevailed.

As it turned out, the bone of contention brought up by the protesting students did not really have any basis. In fact, the Pope was more on their side. It looked like they were attacking phantoms, not real issues.

Then, there also was a meeting with members of the Catholic Education Congregation, charged with the formation of seminarians. This meeting, in itself, was very interesting.

He said that these Catholic centers of learning should not be afraid to assert their Catholic identity, since that identity blends fidelity to the faith and universal openness to things together.

The problem these days is a certain attitude toward education that tends to put fidelity and openness in conflict. And in most cases, favor is tilted more toward openness than toward fidelity. Some warped ideologies are behind that disturbing situation.

In this regard, he encouraged priests and seminarians to learn to handle the multi-faceted challenges of our times, knowing how to put God in them and to relate everything to God. This is actually a never-ending process.

We should not be afraid to admit that an education that has no reference to God is no education at all. That would be at best a limited education, rootless and ultimately aimless, confining itself to empirical data and refusing to enter a transcendent reality.

Pertinent to this point, he once said: “The highest truths cannot be forced into the type of empirical evidence that only applies to material reality.”

Plus, he recently issued a letter to Romans on education as his “own contribution to the formation of new generations, a difficult but crucial commitment for the future.”

He said that with factors like spreading violence, fundamentalism, secularism, crisis in marriage and the family, and in education itself, etc., today’s generation is rendered fragile.

We don’t have to look far to find a smoking-gun kind of evidence to support this claim. We see all around us signs of people, usually young, who seem lost, confused or otherwise swallowed by a wave of escapist activities.

Then he zeroes in on the main culprit: “What is in question is a growing atmosphere...that leads to doubting the value of the human person, the significance of truth and of the good…

“It becomes difficult, then, to hand on from one generation to the next, something valid and certain rules of conduct, credible objectives around which to build one’s life.”

Now that the Pope has clearly spelled out the problem, we have to set in motion many initiatives to solve it. We have to be optimistic, because the possibilities are many and can be exciting and challenging besides.

One point worth reiterating is a very incisive insight the Pope made on this issue. He said that authentic education, meaning the moral formation and growth of the person, involves the proper use of freedom.

Education cannot simply be a matter of building on past knowledge, because “human freedom is always new and therefore each person and generation must make their own decision in their own name.”

“Even the greatest values of the past,” he said, “cannot simply be inherited. We only make them our own and renew them through a personal choice which often costs suffering.”

The implication of this insight is that to provoke this proper use of freedom, which is what love is all about, parents and teachers should give something of themselves.

“Only in this way, can they help their students to overcome egoism and become capable of authentic love in turn,” he said.

Learning to love, not just transmission of technical information, is the essence of education. And God is in the middle of it all, since God is the source, goal and motor of love.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Structures always need animation

POPE Benedict’s second encyclical, Spe salvi (By hope were we saved), gives us a timely reminder about something we many times take for granted and then forget.

Structures, in whatever form they come and no matter how important and indispensable, are useless if not animated by freedom and love.

It’s a reminder for all of us, but most especially for our leaders in all fields of human endeavor, whether in the civil side or ecclesiastical.

The prompter is amply discussed in nos. 22 to 27 of the document, generating a good number of helpful insights, corollaries and practical considerations. It would be good to go through some of these points here, like…

- “If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth, then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.”

- “The right state of human affairs, the moral well-being of the world can never be guaranteed simply through structures alone, however good they are.”

- “Even the best structures function only when the community is animated by convictions capable of motivating people to assent freely to the social order. Freedom requires conviction; conviction does not exist on its own, but must always be gained anew by the community.”

There are many more, but these are enough to remind us that whatever structures we use, they have to be properly animated by freedom, or love which is freedom’s best expression and the creator of convictions.

Without this freedom and love, the structures would lack the soul proper to anything involving human affairs. If structures were jokes, they would lack the punch line. If they were stories, they would lack the climax.

The Pope mentioned a number of historical cases where utopias were promised by ideological systems that failed miserably in the end because they proposed beautiful structures but forgot the animating principle for them.

He mentioned the communist and socialist experiments in many places. In our local setting, we now often complain about the effectiveness of our much-vaunted “People Power” that now seems to be helpless before our complicating political conditions.

Let us remember always that we are not ruled mainly by structures, but rather by freedom and love. That’s how we have been designed, meant for, geared and outfitted. So, let’s not get entangled with our differences in matters of structures. Let’s concentrate more on the spiritual.

Of course, structures and programs are always necessary. But let’s remember that there will be no perfect structure applicable to everyone everywhere. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Let’s just make some kind of consensus so we can live in relative peace.

Also, that our perfection, both personal and social, can only take place in heaven and not here. In this life, only traces of that perfection can be achieved, mainly internally rather than externally.

One practical implication of this papal reminder, especially relevant to our spiritual and Church leaders, is to be relatively cool about the different legitimate albeit imperfect options insofar as structures are concerned, but to be unwaveringly hot about the spirit that should animate these structures.

This latter requirement should never be neglected. Everything should be done not only not to lose sight of it, but also not to be distracted from it. This is because it is a requirement that needs tremendous and constant efforts.

This need requires both supernatural and human means—continuing prayers and sacrifices, recourse to the sacraments, ascetical struggle and development of virtues, catechesis especially of the social doctrine, etc.

In this, more than the government it is the families, the churches and schools that should take the greater responsibility. Thus, if these institutions are also focused more on the structural than on the spiritual, then we’d be in trouble.

So the clergy should keenly realize that it falls on them, more than on anybody else, to provide the spiritual stimulus and nourishment for the people. That’s their distinctive contribution that should not be diluted as much as possible by any other consideration no matter how important.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Conversion

WITH Ash Wednesday, we again begin another season of Lent. Let’s hope that the annual cycle of time, be it chronological, fiscal, academic and especially liturgical, carry a lot of meaning to which we should be attentive.

Time cannot exist by itself. Never an abstract reality, it has to adhere to a substance, such as we are, and therefore it just cannot be a measure of before and after, but is some space for us to achieve a particular purpose.

This is not the place to explain the point, but time converges the objective and subjective dimensions of life’s objective, God’s plan for it and our response. We have to understand and relish the many implications involved in the nature and the meaning of time.

This liturgical season of Lent highlights a basic need, that of conversion, from the inmost part of our being, our heart and mind, to the most social and global dimension of our life.

This is the be-all and end-all of Lent, supposed to be a permanent feature in our consciousness, not to serve as a wet blanket, but rather as a stimulus for us to return to the orbit proper to us. It’s like a corrective maintenance for us.

We have to be wary of the many factors, especially in our current culture and world environment, that tend to weaken our awareness of this need, and even to distort and annul it.

We have been warned so many times before by saints and Church leaders that our sense of sin down the ages has been quite skewed and left out of sync with our faith in God’s plan for us.

Directly said, we need conversion because we have fallen away from our God, our Creator and Father. Yes, it’s time to remind ourselves that we come from God, not just from dust, and that we are meant to live our life with him and to return to him.

Lent is a time to recall how sin entered into the world, how it tampered our nature and our life, how it has been cured, and how we can attain that cure. In a manner of speaking, Lent supplies a crucial missing link in the understanding of our life.

It gives us a more complete and realistic picture of our life, since we tend to disregard some not-so-pleasant aspects of it. Thus, it’s not just dark and hard things that it connotes. It actually points to a human triumph, to joy and peace.

This is because while Lent tells us to grapple with sin and everything that it involves—temptations, effects and structures of sin from the personal level up to the most social aspect—it also reassures us of victory due to God’s endless mercy.

Lent guides us through the way of conversion and transformation, from sin to grace, from moral anemia to radiating vitality, from spiritual death to life. It teaches us that with grace we have to undertake ascetical struggle.

“Where sin abounded, grace abounded even more,” St. Paul tells us. (Rom 5,20) Many other references in the Gospel give us reasons to be hopeful and optimistic about our human condition immersed in sin.

There’s just one thing that I would like to highlight regarding Lent. It is for us to develop a deep spirit of penance. This is the constant awareness of our sinfulness and what we can do about it.

Our sins, failures and weaknesses should not be a deterrent in our relationship with God. With faith in God’s mercy, with humility, we can make them an occasion to get to God even more closely. He always waits for us and is very eager to forgive us.

Our attitude should be like that of the woman with hemorrhage who struggled to touch our Lord’s hem, like that of the blind Bartimaeus who shouted to get Christ’s attention, like that of the paralytic who had to be lowered down the roof to get to our Lord.

With faith in God’s overpowering love for us, in God who loves us so much that He gave his only Son, “so that whoever believes in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting,” (Jn 3,16) we can resurrect from our sin.

We have to richly embroider this spirit of penance with a lot of details—making acts of atonement and reparation, confessing regularly, doing works sof mercy and our work well, being merciful ourselves, etc.

All these make our life truly beautiful!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Bishops’ statements

THE CBCP statement has just come out. A regular product of our bishops’ plenary meetings every January, this year’s statement is entitled, “Reform yourselves and believe in the gospel.”

It’s a call to curb our penchant to blame others for our socio-political problems. Change starts with one’s own self, and this time that change should focus on everyone developing a true Christian social conscience, concerned about the common good, etc., etc.

Through the years, these statements have acquired tremendous importance. And many sectors, especially the press, have learned to look forward to them.

A good part of the reason for this expectation is the largely political element which these statements are now known to have. The media, in fact, vulture-wait for it for that purpose.

Give them a mainly doctrinal-spiritual statement, they will wilt in disappointment. It’s clear they prefer action, drama, blood, revolution to any reminder about prayer, reflection, internal change and quiet social transformation.

This just shows that the Church, which means all of us, needs to more actively evangelize the media. Also, that our bishops should correct the perception in the media that they’re leaning more on social issues than on spiritual ones.

As we all know by now, when the statement came out, the media practically dismissed it as a big letdown to those who wanted the president’s ouster.

Imagine, all the bishops’ praying and discussion just boiling down to that, just amounting to that! Really quite unfair of the media.

But the media are not only to blame. There are things that need to be corrected. We just have to identify them clearly and try to provide the adequate solutions. Like:

- There has to be a more expert way on the part of the bishops in handling the media. Their spokesmen and communication personnel should have a well-developed plan to assure a fair exposure of the true spirit and intent of their statements.

What I see is improvisation and little-coordinated communication efforts, with hardly any follow-ups. There’s also an abiding fatalistic attitude, saying that the media will always be sensational, unfair, biased. This perception should rather rouse Church officials to action.

- We have to erase or minimize the mainly political character of these statements. It’s giving wrong signals to many people, something that the media, of course, is quick to capitalize.

Instead, bishops should be more pro-active than reactive, concentrating on a systematic way of evangelizing our socio-economic and political issues, constantly echoing the Church’s social doctrine. This has to be given more visibility and resonance.

- There should be more and better consultants in the fields of sociology, economics, politics, etc. to give bishops helpful professional advice. In this way, the bishops’ views can acquire greater depth and reach finer nuances, and thus minimize misunderstandings and increase their credibility.

Let’s remember that we are now in a highly information-dependent world. The media today is our new Areopagus, a market abuzz with ideas and views. We have to adapt to this new environment.

Communication styles that worked before, on much simpler and more homogeneous audiences, may not click now. At best they can be retired, placed perhaps in some museum. We have to find more appropriate ways in sync with today’s mentalities.

The apocalyptic, fire-and-brimstone style is definitely obsolete. People nowadays pay more attention to gentler styles, freed of condescending tones, that combine prompt practicality and deep spirituality.

They prefer lighter if more often reminders than occasional but severe and imperial ones. The latter discourage interaction. In this regard, Pope Benedict’s flowing style is worth emulating. He even used anecdotes in his last encyclical, softening its brick-like content.

People like to see their bishops as having a hands-on approach to practical problems. They are getting increasingly impatient with simply being preached to or told the last word.

For this, people actually just want to be encouraged, reminded about being patient, fair and balanced in their assessments of things, having good manners, etc. They appreciate these things more than seeing their bishops getting involved in partisan positions.