Saturday, March 29, 2008

Joy rooted in the cross

THIS is the joy associated with Easter. The very canon and source of joy, it’s an organic fruit of Christ’s cross. And it can only be achieved through it. In short, if not rooted in the cross, you can be sure it’s not real joy.

To understand this joy, we have to go theological. We surely would miss it if we just depend on the biological, psychological, physical, social or economic approaches to it.

Sad to say, these attitudes are common nowadays—of course, in constantly morphing ways. The latest it would seem is to have some makeover. We’ve been through the wellness fad, accessorizing, health tonics, reality shows, etc., all with their intense but fleeting feelings of high.

The late Pope Paul VI described this unfortunate phenomenon once: “Technological society has succeeded in multiplying the occasions of pleasure, but finds great difficulty in giving birth to happiness.

“For happiness has its origin elsewhere. It is a spiritual thing. Money, comfort, hygiene, material security, etc., may often not be lacking but nevertheless, despite these advantages, boredom, suffering and sadness are frequently to be found supervening in the lives of many people.”

And to add some more, it’s not only boredom, suffering and sadness that come, but also all forms of destructive obsessions and sweet poisons can become unavoidable.

Many things now lend credence to this observation. Just look at all the scandals sprouting not only in the entertainment world, but also in the world of politics. Even in some religious circles, these scandals can erupt precisely because the idea of joy is wrongly understood and developed.

Going theological means going beyond the purely human factors that can produce some elements of joy. It means relying more on our Christian faith, letting it integrate all the other aspects to be able to take part in Christ’s joy, no less.

This point is crucial, because it sets us in the most adequate framework in which any effort to understand and attain joy has to be made. Faith corresponds to our fullest stature as persons and children of God, indicating to us what we truly need to be happy.

Faith engages us in our very core and embraces our whole being. It goes much further than what our biological, physical or social nature can cover. It takes us out of the confines of time and space.

It enters into that inmost sanctuary where we relate our time with eternity, what is material with what is spiritual, the human with the divine. It links us with God, our Father and Creator.

For many, the cross that leads to joy is how to actuate our faith. This can be a real test, since faith is not readily felt. Besides, it requires tremendous effort to get around to it. Primarily a supernatural gift, it defies sensible grasping.

Our great challenge is how to make this supernatural faith take deep root in our life so that it can work according to our human condition. We have to aim at that moment when we would have a sensible appetite for it, like what we have for food and air.

This is not an impossible, quixotic dream. We have the means, we have the capability. There’s also, first of all, God’s grace that makes this supernatural phenomenon take place in our often weak, frail selves.

We just have to be brave enough to carry the cross. And this means that we have to learn to activate our spiritual faculties, that is, the use of our intelligence and will animated by grace.

The problem is that we often don’t develop our spiritual faculties. We prefer to remain carnal and material, completely time-and-earth-bound. Worse, there are now systematic ideologies that espouse and reinforce this attitude, and we readily fall for them.

We have to break loose from this veritable slavery. We have to learn to pray, makes sacrifices, study, avail of the sacraments, develop virtues—literally carrying the cross to achieve that resurrection of a joy that the world can never give nor understand.

It’s the joy that flourishes even in the midst of problems and difficulties, the joy that refuses to get spoiled by an atmosphere of human success and prosperity. It’s the joy of being with God.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Regarding culture

WE sometimes need to think big to see if the little, fine things are properly in place. We need to look far to see if items near us are in the right direction. Same with thinking abstract, to see if the concrete, tangible things are according to plan or design.

These are dimensions of our life and behavior, ignoring which unavoidably brings us to some trouble.

Among the big things we need to consider is culture. Yes, it’s kind of abstract and intangible, perhaps too invisible for us to derive any practical use from. But it’s actually like the air we breathe, the water we drink.

Culture is inevitable and necessary, and yet this combination of qualities makes it prone to be taken for granted. We have to be more aware of it to be able to have greater control and direction, in short, sense of responsibility for it.

Even the air we breathe now cannot anymore be ignored. We have to contend with relevant issues like pollution, etc. As to the water we drink, just consider the mushrooming purified water business, to drive home the point. We cannot sideline culture.

Culture is our collective quality of life. It is our abiding self-knowledge, the continuing accumulation and purification of our collective wisdom, the flowing consensus of our attitudes, mentalities and practical ways.

There’s a lot of varieties of elements involved, differences and even conflicts of views and positions, and yet there appears also to be a unifying element in it.

It’s so important in our life that we ought to exercise greater responsibility for it. Especially if we consider that it’s also a living thing, capable of growth and development as well as deterioration, decay and death.

Thus, when we speak of culture, we should not just think of our traditional dances, arts, historical items, etc. At best, these are only reflections, snapshots, rich or poor, of our living culture. They are important, but they don’t capture the essence of culture.

When we speak of culture, we have to enter into our collective soul which, in itself, is already a tremendous effort. No matter how daunting, we just have to do it. Anyway, we always have some ways and means for this purpose.

Some basic principles to follow are that culture is more spiritual than material, that it connotes a necessary linkage between what is internal and external in us, and among our thoughts, words and action.

Thus, it’s capital that we find regular ways of checking how this connection is maintained, adjusted, attuned and updated, as well as strengthened and enriched.

It also involves all of us, obviously in varying ways and degrees. Leaders and those in position of power and influence, like the media, should sharply feel their responsibility of shaping it as best as it can get, given the concrete conditions of our society. The rest of us should learn to follow and do our part.

As a living thing, it needs constant renewal, purification, and an increasing capability to grow and to cope with changing conditions. Though it can have a stable identify and character, it is and should never be rigid, inflexible and stuck to a certain place and time.

A very crucial element in it, one that I consider its life-giving germ and its integrating agent, is its attitude toward faith and religion. These provide us with our basic and abiding sense of values supposed to guide us, giving us meaning and direction to the different things in our life.

Thus, it is important to take care of our faith and religion, making it as strong and vibrant as possible. Problems surrounding this area should be duly attended to, using the proper means and always respecting the freedom of all.

In developing our culture, we should be constantly guided by certain absolute laws and ideals. Using them as criteria, we should have a running knowledge of our strengths and weaknesses, and see what practical strategies we can have as a nation to attain a good and rich culture.

Everyone should feel free to help and contribute in this collective endeavor. In fact, everyone should be generous in doing so, not counting the cost and only thinking of the good of our people, for the greater glory of God.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Our democracy needs to mature

OF course, everyone needs to mature. That’s the natural flow of things. In our social life, which we try to organize through our politics, an abiding process of maturation is a must. We have to be conscious of this so everyone would know the role he plays toward that end.

We have embraced a democratic way of life for quite some time now. In that regard, we are lucky or, some priest-friends would tell me, blessed. There are still a few countries not as lucky or blessed, even to this day of frenzied progress.

And those that are democratic unfortunately show many signs they are missing the true essence of democracy. This is because their ideas of the rule of law, man, truth and freedom are at best questionable.

Of all forms of government, the Church has recommended democracy because of its inherent advantages. This is what John Paul II’s “Centesimus annus” says:

“The Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate.” (46)

We just have to be aware that democracy is a living and very dynamic process. It cannot be expected to automatically give us its true benefits if the actors and the other elements do not do their part.

We have to constantly give life to it, by properly exercising our freedom which is democracy’s animating germ. We say, “properly,” obviously because there are improper ways, millions of them, of abusing our freedom.

The Gospel already warns of this. “Do not use liberty as an occasion for sensuality, but by charity serve one another.” (Gal 5,13) “Live as freemen, yet not using your freedom as a cloak for malice but as servants of God.” (1 Pt 2,16)

We have to be vigilant of the many forms of false freedom that warp and distort our values that are supposed to guide us. Maturing our democratic way of life depends on how we live our freedom.

Sad to say, misunderstanding freedom is what we are seeing these days in abundance. Even the hallowed passage often quoted by people that “the truth shall make you free” is abused, because it is detached from its foundation.

The complete words of Christ are: “If you abide in my word, you shall be my disciples indeed, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (Jn 8,31)

In short, if truth, supposed to make us free, is not derived from Christ’s word but merely from what we want no matter how consensually determined, we will never have true freedom, in spite of our fervent professions for truth and freedom.

As the same Church document teaches us, a democracy that is not firmly based on this understanding of truth and freedom will lead us to be easily manipulated for reasons of power. It can lead us to open or thinly disguised totalitarianism. (cfr 46)

We have to react more sharply and promptly whenever we see traces of true Christian freedom undermined either subtly or otherwise. Nowadays, these attacks on true freedom are plenty and unrelenting.

To mention a few, we have to be extra careful with the games our politicians play. These are often aggravated by the media. When we hear a lot of either positive or negative words from them, so as to weaken what is the realistic situation, we would good reason our freedom is undermined.

When very rosy pictures without any references to problems and difficulties are made to paint our economy, for example, then we have to be suspicious.

Also, when very negative portraits are done without any references to gains and achievements made, we should exercise a healthy dose of doubt.

Right now, my pet peeves are politicians and journalists who just bicker, nitpick, denounce, complain about anything, usually directed against a specific official, without offering any constructive idea or solution to the problems.

I hope we can go further than these useless exercises whose only fruit is to agitate the others and advance the personal agenda of some characters. Truth, freedom, democracy are not for destruction. They are meant to edify the people.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

It’s not about the money

I JUST had a gratifying chat with a young alumnus recently. No, I can’t mention his name. At 19, he is now working at a shipbuilding facility in Balamban, Cebu . When asked what he does there, he just casually said: ship-designing. Of course, to my utter astonishment!

He dashed to explain certain details of his work, to remove the thickening web of disbelief in my head. You see, this guy is just a natural for computers and things like those. His instructors, all praises for him, are one in saying he can hold his own, whatever the circumstances or the competition.

Three years ago, when I first met him in school, he was just a gangly wisp of a boy who came from a southern mountainous part of the province. He looked, dressed, spoke and behaved like someone from there, complete with an accent.

But pity was not the first reaction I had toward him. He has a permanent smile that convinces me this boy would go far. His eyes almost disappear as he speaks. And his words are unbelievably good and sweet always, not a tinge of irony whatsoever.

He’s the eldest in the brood of eight. His father is a farmer, his mother also helps in the farm. Life for them, you can just imagine, has been very austere, which made me wonder how he could have such a sanguine temperament with all the hardships he had to face. Well, God has his ways.

True enough, as we started to meet and chat, I discovered that the guy has a basic sense of simplicity and humility. He gave me the impression he was born without original sin. He refused to get entangled with problems. If they are not solved now, he said, they will be solved later. That’s his attitude.

I believe these are the core traits that firewalled him from going complicated and courting if not inventing all sorts of tragedies. Sadness and pessimism are simply not in his vocabulary.

When I probed into his life of piety, the fellow simply has it. In fact, it’s quite deep and developed. He used to walk 4 kilometers just to attend Sunday Mass in his town. Prayer is a constant in his life, inculcated in him by his grandmother and reinforced by the parents.

So in school, I only had to drill him in basic catechism, polish his virtues, and introduce him to a plan of devotional practices. He was always attentive and appreciative, readily putting to practice what he learned.

His work ethic is superb. He has discipline, a sense of goal and direction. In that last chat we had, he told me that in the three years he was studying in our school, he said there was not even a single time of tardiness or absence. He had perfect attendance.

So finally I asked him, more out of curiosity than anything else, how much he was receiving for his work. After a short pause, and always with his smile and disappearing eyes, he said, “Taking away all the deductions, I receive 10k per payday.”

That again dislodged me from my seat in astonishment. And I could not help to tell him that before becoming a priest, when I was still a professional man, my first pay was only a microscopic fraction of what he is receiving now.

“And to think that I finished a 5-year course in a leading exclusive school for boys in Manila , with honors, and I was already working in a very prestigious company,” I told him more to encourage him than to lament over the unfair comparison.

He just smiled, and managed to amaze me further because he just told me, “Father, it’s not all about the money. It’s about the joy of working, and of learning, and of being able to help.” Wow!

He enumerated to me how he budgets his money, which left me thoroughly impressed. The guy just fits what I know about the virtue of Christian poverty. He continues to live simply, humbly and cheerfully. Success has not spoiled him at all.

I had to rush back to my prayers, overflowing with thanksgiving for being given the chance to meet this fellow. I can’t deny that this guy has left me—and hopefully, you too—completely inspired.

Saturday, March 8, 2008


THIS essay is not about letter-writing or a certain type of distance learning, though I must say that what I have in mind must be the original from which these activities sprung.

I am referring to our constant correspondence to grace, actually a duty that we have to be more aware of and more adept in. It’s actually a most indispensable duty without which Christian life would practically be a sham, no matter how colorfully we show our Christianity.

The basis for this duty is the truth that we are God’s creatures who have been endowed with the dignity of being his children also, sharers in his divine life.

God is not content with creating us only. He made us very special, making us in his very image and likeness. This he did by giving us a spiritual nature, with our intelligence and will, that allows us to receive supernatural grace, that in turn elevates us above our nature to be able to participate in his life.

God’s sharing his life with us is a permanent feature of our relationship, whether we are aware of it or not. This can only be broken in hell, when by our own sins we produce an irremediable rupture from him.

This point is worth reiterating, since a common thinking is that while it may be true that God created us, he already left us to be on our own after our creation. This thinking is called in philosophical circles as Deism.

Just to be direct about it, my simple dictionary describes Deism as “the belief, based solely on reason, in a God who created the universe and then abandoned it, assuming no control over life, exerting no influence on natural phenomena, and giving no supernatural revelation.”

Though not professed formally, it is in fact the attitude many of us have. And this has to be corrected, precisely because it is wrong.

God’s relationship with us does not stop with creating us. While God continues to be present in all his creatures, he is especially present in us, and in fact he shares what he has with us.

This is what our faith teaches. After considering that the Son of God became man, called Jesus Christ, and that he offered his life for us, and through the Church and the sacraments remains with us—all this could only mean that he so loves so that he wants to share what he us with us.

We need to go back to this truth many times, to relish it and to engrave it more deeply in our heart so that it can truly shape the way we think, speak and act, so that it can truly shape our life.

We can presume that God never stops prompting us with his grace, precisely to share his life with us. But he does not impose himself on us. He waits for us to correspond to his grace freely.

The problem is that we most of the time ignore these uninterrupted promptings. We forget him, put him at the sidelines, and use him only as some kind of ornament.

Correspondence to grace is our effort to do our part in this relationship of love between God and us. It is supposed to be an existential relationship, lived moment to moment. We are not meant to be alone. We are meant to be with God always.

Thus, our intelligence and will, our spiritual faculties that open us the possibility of being elevated to share in God’s life, should be properly focused. Their main and constant object is God, not just anything we want to know and will.

Using our intelligence and will to pursue only our own personal goals would be an abuse of these faculties, and sooner or later, disastrous consequences would start appearing.

This is the common sickness we have at the moment, so common that it looks like the normal thing to have. Unless focused on God, our faculties cannot resist the lures of what are known as the capital sins: pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony and sloth.

We always need to correspond to God’s grace to the point that we can echo what our Lord once said: “I always do what pleases him (his Father).” (Jn 8,29) That should our attitude always.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Witness vs. whistleblower

WITH the brewing and bruising political “telenovela” we are having at the moment—hopefully it will last only for a season—it might be good to know the distinction between a witness and a whistleblower.

The comparison, for sure, is not idle. Nor is it merely theoretical and abstract. With passions raging, having clear ideas about critical elements involved is truly helpful. It’s a must. It facilitates prudence.

Otherwise, we will be teetering on the edge of stupidity. Never discount that possibility. We have seen it before: massive euphoria over People Power only to fall flat on our faces later precisely because essential duties were ignored.

We have had a number of shameful flashes in the pan. And this is because we tend to leave reason, restraint, prudence and charity behind. We simply burn in our righteousness, not realizing we have already lapsed into lack of charity, justice and even common sense.

The current communal search for truth now being called by some bishops has to take the necessary precautionary measures. But one element that should be borne in mind is the distinction between true witnessing and mere whistleblowing.

Both have to do with truth handling. But a true witness is much more than just a whistleblower.

The whistleblower simply tells on an anomaly or a crime. The witness goes way much further, confessing and testifying not only on an event, but rather on his whole life, his global vision of things and outlook.

The testimony of a whistleblower is limited to a specific time, place and act. That of a witness covers everything. The whistleblower usually creates a stir from time to time. The witness simply lives as witness all the time, in big and small things, in times ordinary and extraordinary.

Only a few can be a whistleblower. But everyone is expected to be a witness. More, the whistleblower should try to be a witness always. This requires effort. In fact, it demands nothing less than continuing conversion.

That is the problem. We often fail to be a true witness. This is simply because we don’t get in vital contact with God who is the truth. We live sincerity in a selective way, only getting those truths that benefit us, while shunning those that require sacrifice. We sometimes invent our own “truth”!

Thus, when we happen to be a whistleblower without being a witness, then all sorts of crazy things happen as we let ourselves play into the hands of the devil. We play the devil’s game. We don’t behave as instruments of God’s providence. And mind you, the devil can be very creative.

Whistleblowing and witnessing have to come from God and end in God. They’re never just one’s strictly personal affair, developed according to one’s personal strategy only, and readily exploited by others, usually politicians with selfish personal agendas.

Our Church leaders should be the first to know this distinction and to realize the enormous challenge of helping the flock live as genuine witnesses of the truth, that is, of God, no less. We should not just stop in encouraging people to be mere whistleblowers.

This requires a tremendous amount of prayers, of sacrifices, and of catechizing, giving good example and constant pastoral care. This also requires a deep grounding in the Church’s social doctrine, so as to come up with clear, not confusing practical indications.

I think the devil is happiest when we, the Church leaders and officials, start going to the streets, shouting and demonstrating, and recklessly spewing statements and judgments everywhere, while neglecting our nontransferrable priestly duties.

An indispensable element for any search for truth, for any effort at being sincere is charity, which includes a lot of understanding for everyone including the culprits, and not taking sides.

Christ forgave all and was even willing to offer his life for that. We can do no less. He taught us this in the Our Father—“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

This is the most challenging part. While we have to be most rigid and strict in looking for the truth, we should also be most kind and lenient in dispensing understanding and mercy. We respect the laws. We don’t take them into our own hands.