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Saturday, September 29, 2012

WOULD THAT EVERYONE PROPHESIED!

 
26th Sunday Year B
September 30, 2012

WOULD THAT EVERYONE PROPHESIED!

I am running a bit late with my usual Sunday reflections, both in English and Tagalog. I have been busier over the past weeks on account of class preparations, a series of seminars and talks, two retreats to preach, and personality evaluation reports of seminarians to write, on top of the usual tasks I am wont to do.

I write from Tagaytay in between talks to a big group of highly motivated and enthusiastic volunteer Church pastoral workers. Leading them to do small-group share-ins, does not take much on my part. They take to it like fish to water. In fact, my problem is how to stop them and have me process what they shared in their respective little groups.

We priests and preachers do not have the monopoly of the Spirit. That much, seems to be clear in the first and third readings. Moses, Spirit-led surely as he was, knew better than to prevent Eldad and Medad from prophesying in the camp.

Nowadays, the world at large, and, a fortiori, the Church, too, is in rapid flux. The Catholic journalist, John Allen, says a lot about what he calls the “ten megatrends” in the Church. One of these is the rise of what he calls “evangelical Catholicism.” Among other things, this refers to a more lay-inspired and lay-led Church that will, on the surface, kind of undermine the “kingly”role (traditionally understood) of the ordained ministers like me. Parishes and traditional institutional Church structures will no longer define the pastoral and spiritual life and nourishment of many people. Social entrepreneurs, cum preachers will figure in prominently in the landscape of the lived faith of many people.

I can understand the well-meaning “clerical envy” or pastoral worry of the followers of Moses. Eldad and Medad were kind of “pulling the rug from under the feet” of Moses.  I can understand, too, the solicitude of the disciples who came anxious to the Lord saying: “We saw someone driving out demons in your name.”

But putting all this worry and clerical envy aside, it cannot be denied that the world, at large, is a hungry world, an expecting world, a world waiting for answers, for meaning, in the midst of so many pressing and complex problems that have to do with equally “mega” trends such as massive environmental collapse as seen now in the undeniable patterns of climate change (despite the avowed denials of ultra rightists who are notorious for sticking to the status quo of business-as-usual).

One thing that stands out clear from the readings today, at least for me, is this. One cannot stifle the Spirit. One cannot put His inspirations into a box, and hold Him hostage to structures and a stale system characterized by a stunted, stilted, and stumped “pecking order” of sorts. Whilst it is true that salvation comes only from God, mediated by a divine and human institution all at one and the same time, the process of redemption of each and everyone stands in need of all the help it can get, from ministers other than the Eldads and Medads of our times, or the upstart disciple who came across to the others as an eager-beaver who went a little overboard, by their standards.

Would that everyone prophesied! Would that all in and outside the institutional Church got stricken by the ministerial flu of zeal for the Kingdom!

As a priest, I am overwhelmed at times. I cannot manage to keep up with the many questions posed to me in Facebook and other means. People who have been long-time members of the Church rely on me in order to answer the same oft-repeated “questions” (they are actually more like accusations, or an opportunity to pick a quarrel or engage in a fruitless debate!), that, you would have hoped they could very well answer for themselves. But for the most part, many lay Catholics are very well schooled in sacramental spirituality, but not in “evangelical” spirituality. Many of us are very well sacramentalized but poorly evangelized (or poorly catechized!), in such a way that just about everyone bandies about the oft-abused statement: “My conscience is clear!” And by that, what they really mean is, “my choice is clear” (clearer than Sprite!) or “my preferences are clear.” It is nothing else but conscience as an “event” – a judgement, and conscience as a “habit” and as a “process” has really gone out the window of relativism and personal preferences.

I salute all the lay people (some of whom are former students) and lay colleagues who take up the cudgels for God and His Church. They do their part to defend the Church for both fair and (mostly) unfair bashings that come her way on a daily basis. Sometimes, they put up a gallant fight, as you and I know, that in the case of some clerics, their behavior and behavior patterns, are downright indefensible.

I address myself to all lay people who still love the Church despite us and despite our sometimes bad examples. The Church needs you. God’s message of salvation needs all the help it can get. We need to all help God save us. We need lay people like you to help us in the ministry of teaching all women and men the Good News of salvation.

Would that everyone prophesied in God’s name!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

SIMPLE GREATNESS


25th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
September 23, 2012

SIMPLE GREATNESS

This Sunday is a Sunday marked with schemings and plottings, and secret trips and secret arguments. All three readings speak either of evil men clandestinely ganging up on the “just one” (1st Reading), or hidden passions from which come “wars and conflicts” and “jealousy and selfish ambition” (2nd Reading), or the Lord and his disciples going secretly on a journey through Galilee, and disciples quietly, though apparently not discretely, but actually passionately arguing about “who was the greatest” among them! (Gospel).

This Sunday, like all other Sundays of the year, have to do with real challenges, real problems, and real people dealing with all too real scenarios of selfishness, greed, and lust for honor and glory.

Let us face it! … We, too, go through such selfish antics every once in a while. As the first reading shows us, at times, envy gets the better of us, and, instead of getting the core of the message, we seek to kill the messenger – for “he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings.”

We cannot stand the truth. We cannot face what ought to be liberating truth, even if we always have a mouthful to say about the self-concocted and made-up truths that concern other people except ourselves.

But James in the second reading hits the nail right on the head and puts us right back in place … No need for us to blame others, he says. No need to look for scapegoats and fall guys. No need to look too far for answers, for they are right within us – the “passions that make war within” and among ourselves!

The disciples, too, were not spared. They, too, fell victim to their own ambitiousness and thirst for prestige and glory. Even as the Lord was focused on gradually introducing them to the mystery of the Son of Man, the so-called “messianic secret,” and even as the Lord was on an ostensible “secret” trip together with his close-in followers, the same disciples were on a not-so-secret ego trip. Where the Lord was trying to lead them to understand something of monumental importance, that “the Son of Man [was] going to be handed over to men and they [would] kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man [would] rise,” the same disciples apparently were not too interested. Neither were they paying any attention. They were actually focused on establishing who among them was the greatest!

The three readings expose the truth about who and what we are. We could be scheming and plotting, as the Book of Wisdom reminds us. We could stand in the way of the good man, and block everything he sets out to do. We could be jealous, selfish, covetous, envious and even murderous, at worst, or conveniently indifferent and callous, like the disciples, at best.

But while the Lord tried to keep his journey through Galilee a secret of sorts, for reasons I know not of, being a non-Biblical scholar, I would like to suggest that he makes no secret about what sort of life journey we all need to do.

First, we need to know Him as the Lord who upholds [our] life (Responsorial Psalm). We need to see Him as He really is for us and for all women and men – the Messiah, the Savior, who came, not to be served, but to serve.

Second, we need to look, not outside of us, but inside us, for insights to our own wicked behavior, and that which, ultimately, will help us  - “wisdom from above” that is “pure, peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity.”

Third, and most importantly, the Lord does not merely tell us. He shows us. And greatness is by way of being like a child, and that being first really means being the “last of all and the servant of all.”

There are far too many big men with big egos in the world today. We see it everyday … national leaders and even international figures edging one another out of positions of power and prestige and honor. The same dirty and sinful system of politics is in place in many countries all over the world. In the country where I am, mendacious and manipulative men, known by the title of honorable, keep on throwing much at each other at the slightest provocation, especially now, that the elections are no more than six or seven months away. Even in the Church that I love and serve, politics often rears its ugly head when persons and personalities clash over issues and, most especially, over positions.

The “messianic secret” that the Lord took pains to reveal ever so gradually, that perhaps led him to do a quiet unheralded trip through Galilee, is really no secret anymore to us all. He was handed over. He was sentenced to die a shameful death. He suffered. He died. And as promised, He rose from the dead.

What about us? Isn’t it obvious that we are still arguing among ourselves and discussing who should be greatest? Isn’t it obvious that we all are still under the sway of sin and selfishness in such a way that we cannot even get our act together and do the good that we are called to do?

We have lost the art of being childlike. Children are naturally honest, sincere, loyal, and true. Being childlike is all about choosing and deciding voluntarily, to be “the last and the servant of all,” – to be insignificant and simple as simple can be.

And as Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Nothing is more simple than greatness. Indeed, to be simple is to be great.” “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”


Saturday, September 15, 2012

I WILL WALK BEFORE THE LORD, IN THE LAND OF THE LIVING!


24th Sunday Year B
September 16, 2012

I WILL WALK BEFORE THE LORD, 
IN THE LAND OF THE LIVING!

The readings today could be a little disturbing. Here is one example of suffering unjustly, as Isaiah in the first reading experienced, so undeservedly and so unrightly, but still finds it in his heart, neither to “rebel,” nor  to “turn back,” but instead takes it all in stride.

One hardly hears such stories these days, where instant retribution is the name of the game. In our times, we mean it when we say, “a good offense is the best defense.” Cry out … complain … speak out and rebel … and, when push comes to shove, turn your back and walk away in a huff, never to suffer the same ignominy and shame again!

We are, more often than not, all cop-outs. We suffer once, and that’s it! We swear never to come back, never to be subjected once gain to everything equivalent to Isaiah’s “buffets and spitting.”

I, too, am one among them, perhaps, the worst of the lot. I run away from pain, and from people who seem to like to “beat me” and “oppose me.”

But I am more than just aware of  individuals who “made it through the rain” and put up a gallant noble stance, knowing that God “upholds his right,” and knowing, furthermore, that “God is his help.”

St. Padre Pio was one of them. He suffered immensely, truly, patiently, and undeservedly. But he knew the one in whom he believed!

Blessed Mother Teresa was among them, too. Working with people who were “half-dead” or “dying” both figuratively and literally, the poorest among the poor of Calcutta, who were, for all intents and purposes, dead in the estimation of the world, she put up a gallant fight, convinced, like the psalmist, that “she will walk before the Lord in the land of the living!” (Responsorial Psalm).

We priests are a fortunate and blessed lot. With a few exceptions, most of us are assured of three square meals a day, at the very least. On the whole, we are very well sheltered, relatively speaking. We have the singular grace of a very good, solid education. We move around in the company of those, who, more often than not, are well-heeled, and equally well educated, if not better positioned in society.

But more than anything else, we are a people of faith. At the very least, we know what we believe in. We generally know our creed, our code, and our cult.

But we also are more responsible than the average man or woman in the street, to know better than to separate faith from works. We are at the very least, aware that our faith must show in what we do, in our works, and that it doesn’t speak very well of us if we only tell people to do as we say, and not as we do. The words of James in the second reading, applies to all believers, cleric or lay: “Faith without works is dead.”

But I am no Padre Pio, and definitely as of yet, do not get anywhere near the saintly stature of Mother Teresa. I lose steam. I lose courage. I lose enthusiasm when people I work for, and work with… people who claim to believe and belong, give me the equivalent of beatings, pluckings, buffets, and spitting!

The readings are kinda difficult today. But hard or otherwise, they sure convict me and you. For we are all in this together. We all fall short of the glory of God, and we all, are sinful human beings.

I confess to one sin, common among all of us who preach and teach. We know a lot about God. We talk about Him everyday … at Mass, at school, in the parish hall, at prayer meetings, in meetings with both clergy and lay people.

But knowing about Him is not the same as knowing Him. And this is where we all falter and fail. We all can fool ourselves into believing that it is enough to know about Him.

I would invite my readers to be convicted, as I am, today. The question before us is important. “Who do people say I am?” No … there is more than just that “third person” question … “Who do you say that I am?”

Now, this is the difficult part. You and I know, all too well, that I cannot go back to my dogma and liturgy and morals to answer that question. You and I know that you, too, cannot just fall back on your theology in college, or catechism in your childhood. You and I know that one simply cannot dig and search for your diploma back in Catholic university and College to answer that question convincingly, honestly and sincerely.

You and I know all too well, that we need more than just factual and conceptual knowledge. You and I know, too, that it still goes beyond mere evaluative knowledge … that it takes more than just knowing about God, but a lot more on knowing God as He is, in Himself, and how He means to each and everyone of us.

I confessed to you how easy it is, even for me, perhaps especially for me, to just pass of this question and answer it dutifully with cold, dead facts and data.

But I do need to tell you that suffering, personal pain and unjust and undeserved pain has taught me precious lessons. They taught me passion, dedication, and commitment. For in and through pain, I learned albeit so faintly and feebly, that when one is down and out, God comes to help me find meaning in the pain. God knows I have suffered unjustly many times. God knows I did not merit at least some of it. But I do know by experience that Isaiah’s words can indeed, ring true for those who neither “rebel,” nor “turn back.”

Please come and walk by me … Please come and walk by the Lord’s side, even if your heart now only wants to cry out in pain! Together with the psalmist, let us claim what he, too, has learned in suffering: “I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living!”

Saturday, September 8, 2012

TO ALL THOSE WHOSE HEARTS ARE FRIGHTENED!

23rd Sunday Year B
September 9, 2012


TO ALL THOSE WHOSE HEARTS ARE FRIGHTENED!

Truth to tell, we never run out of reasons, on occasion, to be scared. Just last week, a big quake jolted many people from Davao down south, all the way up north to Baguio City. Whilst it was powerful enough to jar everyone’s nerves, fortunately, it was too far off to sea to create what could very well have been great damage to life and property on a wide swath of Philippine territory.

A few weeks after the Sendong tragedy last year in CDO and Iligan, I, together with a group of young priests on immersion and ongoing formation, was there for a few days. The sight of what used to be flourishing villages all washed away, or rammed to smithereens by logs that came cascading down the mountains of Bukidnon, made our hearts sink. But what really rended our hearts were stories of children, who, upon hearing the rains fall, would all be racked by intense panic and anxiety (signs of some form of PTSD!), and would all cry aloud in fear!

I don’t remember when it was that I really was mortally afraid of something. But I faintly remember being alone in a dark room, deep into the night, and hearing loud voices in the house. I was probably 4 or 5 years old then. The dark, being alone in a room with no one beside me, the loud noises coming from outside, and what seemed like panicky, fearful voices about something I knew nothing about – all made me freeze and break out into a cold sweat.

I don’t remember what it was that made me scared, but I remember the feeling. The children in Cagayan de Oro City, also probably didn’t know what exactly they were afraid of, but the rains sure had a way of reminding them about the dreaded feeling.

Today, the readings are gently reassuring. For one, they speak about healing – healing from so many ills, including, of course, fears of all  kinds.

What could these fears mean for us? I can think offhand, of at least the following …

First, we are all afraid to get sick. One proof of this is the proliferation of an infinite number of supplements, both local and foreign manufactured. Local and international pharma companies are making a killing manufacturing and selling all those medicines, whether essential or supplemental. Many would-be parents are mortally afraid to have abnormal children, and so, even if it is really immoral in some cases, they subject their fetuses to all sorts of invasive and non-invasive procedures, just to assure that their kids won’t have the equivalent of that speech impediment that the gospel today speaks about.

Second, we are afraid to be treated as less that we think we are. We are allergic to all sorts of partialities and biases. We suffer a lot when we are ignored, when we are treated less than how others of greater means are treated. We all want recognition and affirmation, and we feel it terribly when we are not affirmed accordingly.

Been there; done that! I am no spring chicken anymore … been 34 years educating and 30 years a priest. With all these years behind me, you would think I ought not to have any fears anymore! But I confess I still do. It is all part of being human. I am afraid to get old and useless. I am afraid of being taken care of by others. Being naturally self-reliant and in many ways, also, self-sufficient, I am terrified at having to depend on others for any and every little thing.

I need healing. I need reassurance. I need precisely what all three readings today remind us of. I need the good news and the reassurance that it can bring me, especially in these trying times, when just about everybody’s aim to is to bash the Church and us, her ministers. I need to be reminded, like all of you my readers and followers need to be reminded.

Thus I would like to say “to those whose hearts are frightened” … to myself, and to you all … It is no secret that as human beings, we also get a little down and out, especially when all accusations (some of them undeniably true), are hurled against us, for we take a stand against certain contentious issues, and side by Holy Mother Church!

“Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you.”

He is on the side of those who suffer, on the side of those who are sidetracked. Through James, God reminds us: “Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?”

And Christ, definitely, is on the side of the downtrodden. He came to heal. He came to save. He came to bridge the gap between those who have and those who have not. And He makes no secret about his preferences … He favors the one who is needy, the one who needs help, the one who needs a boost.

At times, we don’t need to look too far. In fact, at times like these, we can very well look at ourselves and see ourselves for who really we are: needy, poor in many ways, and utterly dependent on His mercy and compassion.

He has a consoling and healing word for us: “Ephphatha! Be opened!”

This is a word for us and all those whose hearts are frightened! Thanks be to God!




Saturday, September 1, 2012

HEAR, AND UNDERSTAND!


22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
September 2, 2012

HEAR, AND UNDERSTAND!

Some years ago, prior to my assignment in Guam, I had an odd experience. I had an appointment with a long-lost friend from abroad at the Mall of Asia. It was a Sunday, and the only time I had was after my last Mass for the day, which was about 8 PM. I was in some kind of a hurry. It was drizzling lightly, and traffic was light. Somewhere in Pasay City, while traversing EDSA to go to MOA, a man on a bicycle was on my lane, directly on my path. I needed to change lane. I looked at my rear view and side mirrors and knew the other two lanes at my left and right were free. So I did change lanes, confident that everything was legit.

From out of the shadows, a group of “traffic” policemen suddenly flagged me down frantically. I was being cited for a traffic violation, and they called it “swerving.” I said that it was not at all swerving. They said I was “driving recklessly” by changing lanes. One of them, whose eyes were scanning the inside of the vehicle saw my chasuble still hanging near the rear window. He blurted out: “Oh, are you a priest?” I said, “Yes.” At that point, the whole group turned very friendly, and with wide smiles asked me what Parish Church I usually said my Sunday Masses. I told them. The leader of the band glibly and proudly told me: “Oh, that is where I go to Mass, too, Father.” “Sorry, Father!” And they let me go!

Whatever happened to the so-called “traffic violation?” It was obvious to me (as I believe it is obvious to my readers) that it was all a “set-up” for them to make extra money on hapless and clueless motorists like me on a dark, rainy, Sunday evening.

But that is not what really upset me. What really piqued me was the gall they had to claim that they dutifully and religiously go to Mass on the same parish Church I had celebrated Masses in.

Like many Filipino Catholics who claim to believe, they “heard” the teachings more or less. But they may have misunderstood a whole lot of things.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to a bio-ethics forum in a famous hospital in Manila. I was asked to react to the bio-ethical presentation and analysis of a group of young doctors featuring a classic case of a pregnant woman who also happened to have an ovarian cyst. After being duly informed about the pros and cons of an aggressive or a less aggressive chemotherapy, the woman, who “heard” the sound ethical principles, and who “understood” their full implications, decided autonomously, under the principle of so-called “informed consent,” to undergo the less aggressive treatment, for she wanted her baby to possibly live, and be brought to term.


The discussion went well. The group understood that the decision of the patient was within the ambit of sound ethical reflection, applying the “principle of double effect.” The big group of doctors sort of got a consensus, even if not everyone who spoke saw it in the same way the presentors and the reactors did, including myself.

But then, towards the end of the session, someone who was not supposed to be one of the reactors, a doctor herself, raised her hands, wanting to give a piece of her mind. That proved to be a big letdown! She spoke tersely – if, a bit – categorically. She said, “For us doctors, the issue is very simple. If a pregnant woman with cancer in the ovaries comes to us, we immediately tell her to bring the pregnancy to term and abort the baby. And then she directed the rest of her question to me: “Father, should I confess this? Do I commit sin?”

I was momentarily petrified in my chair. Since we were just about to  the close the session, I did not immediately know how to answer her. There was a pregnant silence from everyone in the room. I was flabbergasted, as I felt that what I thought was already a clear consensus, was muddled towards the end, and we felt we were back to square one, all of a sudden.

I narrate these two vignettes because I feel they have a lot to do with the readings we heard today. The first reading would have us understand what Moses told his people: “Hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live.” The two key words are “statutes and decrees,” which presumably, refer to God’s will in concrete, that are behind the moral norms that we Christians ought to hold onto and abide by.

But the second reading seems to take it up a notch higher. James reminds his readers to “be doers of the word and not hearers only.” Simply put, James tells us to go beyond mere “hearing.” We need to go further and really “understand,” – and do accordingly!

It is unfortunate that there are so many Catholics in our times, who claim to have “heard” the moral teachings, but who are less willing to “understand.” In our current context, the ordinary faithful who know very little of their faith are confused by so many groups who claim to be catholics, but who really do not belong to the fold. They claim to believe, and yet, using the very passport of faith, claim not to hold allegiance and loyalty to the very institution whose responsibility is to keep the deposit of that faith, and the teaching of moral behavior that is in accordance with that faith. Catholics for Choice, is one such group in the USA. Transported to the Philippines, where people ape everything that comes from the west, it became Catholics for RH. They claim to believe, but do not hold on to the entire teaching and tradition of the very same Church they claim to belong, but which they try to undermine from within!

The Lord, in today’s gospel, has a mouthful to say to people whom he rightly calls “hypocrites.” They mouth pious and religious things, but they are not willing to behave accordingly. They go under the title of catholic, while declaring openly that they are not in favor of what Mother Church teaches, in matters of faith and morals. Quoting Isaiah, the Lord said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.”

The whole nation is seriously divided on many fronts. We are divided politically and in many other aspects. Now, even catholics mistake “freedom of conscience” to mean “freedom from truth” and “freedom from objective guidance.” They reduce freedom of conscience to shallow and narrow personal preference, for they have divorced their conscience from timeless truths that the Magisterium teaches. In short, they have reduced themselves to being “cafeteria catholics,” who choose what to believe in, and who reject those that do not jibe with their personal conjectures, half-digested pious “truths,” and nothing more than just emotivism and matters of personal preferences. Freedom of conscience is their constant cry, but they never talk about educating their consciences to genuine, authentic, and “glorious liberty of the children of God,” based always on moral truths and objective criteria of right and wrong, based always, in turn, on natural law apprehended by reason, and enlightened by faith.

Let us be reminded by the Lord today who tells us: “Hear and understand!”