Sunday, October 14, 2018

St. Oscar Romero: Bishop and Martyr


On March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was shot to death by a right-wing death squad while celebrating the Eucharist.  Since then, the people of El Salvador and many others from various parts of the world have revered him as a martyr. After more than three decades, Rome has finally officially recognized his martyrdom. He was beatified on May 23, 2015 and will be canonized on October 14, 2018. Why is Oscar Romero honored as a saint? What is the meaning of his martyrdom?
 Traditionally, the recognition of martyrdom was reserved for those put to death in “odium fidei” or in hatred of the faith during times of persecution. There were times in the past when Christians were hated on account of their faith. They were persecuted for being Christians. Many were given the choice of renouncing their faith and thus save their life or hold on to the faith and lose their life. The focus of martyrdom was their suffering and death which was seen as the consequence of confessing and holding on to their faith. Those who persecuted them were mostly non-Christian rulers who rejected the faith and who were filled with hatred for the Christian faith and those propagating it. This was the case during the first three centuries of Christianity and during the period of missionary expansion in Asia.
The circumstances of Romero’s death was different. El Salvador was governed by a repressive regime made up of Christian Democrats who were controlled by the military. Many believe that Romero was assassinated for defending the rights of the poor and for denouncing the injustices and repression carried out by the regime. There were doubts whether he was really murdered in odium fidei. This was one of the reasons for the slow progress of his cause. In 2014, when asked about Romero’s martyrdom, Pope Francis commented:
“What I would like is a clarification about martyrdom in odium fidei, whether it can occur either for having confessed the Creed or for having done the works which Jesus commands with regard to one’s neighbor. And this is a task for theologians.”
Thus, in Feb 2015, when asking Pope Francis to recognize Romero’s martyrdom, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints affirmed:
“He was killed at the altar. Through him, they wanted to strike the church that flowed from the Second Vatican Council. His assassination was not caused by motives that were simply political, but by hatred for a faith that, imbued with charity, would not be silent in the face of the injustices that relentless and cruelly slaughtered the poor and their defenders.”
While the congregation broadened the understanding of odium fidei to justify Romero’s martyrdom, there is a need to explore further the meaning of his martyrdom. This is necessary so that the martyrdom of many others – clergy, religious, lay faithful, members of Basic Ecclesial Communities - who were murdered in El Salvador and in other places in Latin America and the Philippines may be recognized. 
I propose that in looking at martyrdom there is a need to clarify and deepen the understanding of the faith. Faith is not simply a set of divine truths or Church doctrines that we profess, affirm or hold on to. This faith is not only expressed through the celebration of the sacraments and devotion to the saints. It is also shown by giving witness to the faith through acts of love, justice, mercy and compassion. The love of one’s neighbor especially the poor and the oppressed is a concrete expression of this faith.  This is the faith that does justice. This is the faith expressed in liberating praxis. This is the kind of faith  that Archbishop Oscar Romero and the Church of El Salvador tried to live. This kind of faith was considered subversive – a threat to National Security. The persecution in El Salvador and the martyrdom of Oscar Romero and others can be seen from this perspective – in hatred of a faith that is integral and liberating.
There is another framework for understanding Romero’s martyrdom that goes beyond odium fidei.  We can use the framework of Vatican II – the so-called Triplex Munus. The prophetic, kingly/pastoral and priestly mission of Christ, the Church, the clergy and the lay-faithful. Like Jesus, the cross – martyrdom – is the consequence and expression of faithfully carrying out the three-fold mission within a hostile environment.


The martyrdom of Romero may be seen as the consequence of exercising his prophetic mission. Romero denounced the sinful situation in his country perpetuated by those who monopolized wealth and power. He became the voice of the voiceless. He denounced the oppression of the people especially the poor, the injustices, the poverty, inequality, the spiral of violence, the idolatry of the National Security ideology. He called people to conversion – especially those who were responsible for the social evils. He also preached the Good News of the kingdom – of liberation, of justice and peace to all especially to the poor. Romero gave hope to those who found themselves in a helpless and intolerable situation.
The martyrdom of Romero can also be regarded as the consequence and  the ultimate expression of his loving service as  the pastor, the good shepherd of the flock, who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as ransom for many. He was the shepherd who had the smell of the sheep. He ministered to them – especially to the poor who were the majority. He did not run away upon seeing his flock being attacked by wolves – the forces of the repressive regime.
His martyrdom at the hands of the death squads while celebrating the Eucharist can be regarded as the ultimate expression of his priesthood. He did not only offer the body and blood of the risen Christ on the altar, he also offered his own body and blood in memory of Him who died on the cross and rose from the dead. He sacrificed his own life following the example of Christ. This is what priesthood ultimately means.
Thus, Oscar Romero lived to the full what it means to be a follower of Christ. Like Christ he suffered and died to fulfill his mission as prophet, pastor and priest. He walked the way Jesus – the way of the cross. He embraced his own cross – the cost of discipleship. Shortly before he gave up his life, Archbishop Oscar Romero said:
“As a pastor, I am obligated by divine commandment to give my life for those I love… For that reason I offer to God my blood for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador… Martyrdom is a grace that I don’t believe I merit. But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, may my death, if it is accepted by God, be for the liberation of my people and a testimony of hope in the future.”

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Cancer Treatment: A Holistic Approach


Cancer is one of the most difficult disease to cure or heal. So far, no effective treatment for cancer has been found – especially when it has metastasized or spread to other vital organs. Standard medical treatment such as chemotherapy, surgery and radio-therapy does not always work. They are very expensive and there is no guarantee of a cure. These can only extend the life of a patient for a few months or years. That is why for many, being diagnosed with cancer is like being handed the death sentence.
Why is a cure for cancer so elusive? The problem comes from lack of understanding of what cancer truly is and what causes it. The dominant paradigm is that cancer is purely a physiological ailment that requires medical treatment. It is the invasion and spread of malignant cells in the body. These cells may come from the food and substances that are considered carcinogenic -- including smoking. Thus, it is necessary to wage war on these cells – search and destroy – using whatever means necessary: chemical/laser warfare, surgical strikes, etc. Only doctors (especially oncologists & surgeons), nurses and medical technicians can be relied on in this war against cancer. The patient must have the will to fight cancer. Oftentimes it ends in death which is considered a defeat.
To regard cancer as purely a physiological and medical problem is most likely one of the main reasons why it is difficult to cure cancer. It is based on a dichotomy between the body and the mind.  A more revolutionary approach to cancer treatment promoted by oncologists such as Drs. Carl Simonton and Bernie Siegel is to regard cancer as a psycho-somatic disease that requires a more holistic approach to healing. Instead of looking at a particular part of the body or an organ that is affected by cancer, it is helpful to understand the person as whole - the joyful and sorrowful mystery of his/her life, the frustrations, anger, grief, alienation, shattered dreams, failed relationship, etc. It is important to know his/her story. The body is affected by the state of the mind and the soul. Thus, the question that should be asked is: what has been happening to this person before the onset of cancer. One of the findings in studies conducted among patients is that stress caused by sense of loss, anger, guilt and anxiety, a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness can lower the body’s natural defense or immune system and contribute to the growth of malignant tumors and cells.
The question that also needs to be asked is: what are the benefits of having cancer?
For some, it is experiencing the loving care and concern which is lacking in one’s life.
It could also be a means of escape from an intolerable situation, the inner pain or hurt that one has been carrying. It can be an honorable exit, a subconscious suicide. The mind has a powerful effect on the body – it can contribute to sickness as well as to wellness or healing.
Thus, in dealing with cancer patients, there are three dimensions of healing that we should look at:  physical (body), psychological (mind) and spiritual (soul). All these are connected and they influence each other. That is why healing must be holistic.  A more holistic approach can mobilize the power of the mind and of belief. That is why psycho-therapy, counseling, meditation, visualization, prayer and other eastern modalities can be helpful in this.
The healing of cancer patients can no longer be left just to medical practitioners - the doctors and nurses -- and drug companies. Psychologists, priests, spiritual healers and other practitioners of alternative medicine should also be involved. This requires humility on the part of those in the medical profession and openness to collaboration with others in the healing process.
The physical disease may be a symptom for the need for inner healing. Forgiveness and reconciliation form part of the healing process. The healing of the mind and soul may lead to the healing of the body. But even if it does not lead to physical healing, the inner healing itself can already be considered as an achievement. Death, if it comes, will no longer be seen as a defeat.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Servant-Leadership


The theme of the Year of the Clergy and Consecrated Life focuses on “Servant-Leadership.”  This theme is based on Vatican II  emphasis that the clergy should “exercise leadership and authority in the spirit of service following the example of Christ who came not to be served but to serve and lay down his life for his sheep.” (Lumen Gentium 27)
There are several texts in the Gospels where Jesus’ teaching on leadership can be found. The first is from the Gospel of Matthew (20:25-28) which has parallels in other Gospels:
 “But Jesus summoned them and said, you know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life for the ransom of many.”
In this text, Jesus criticizes the usual way of exercising leadership which is the use of authority motivated by the drive for power, prestige and privilege.  Jesus offers another way of exercising leadership that he prescribed to his disciples -- humble service. He refers himself as the model: “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.”  At the heart of Jesus’ teaching of leadership is servanthood – servant-leadership. This is manifested in a symbolic way at the last supper when he washed that feet of his disciples. After doing this he says:
“If I, therefore, the master and teacher have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” (John 13:14-15)
This text sums up what Jesus’ life signify and what his death on the cross the following day mean. Jesus’ washing the feet of the disciples must have been a shocking and confusing act for the disciples. It is a demeaning act. Only servants do this.  Jesus’ washing of the feet is a symbolic act to dramatize his view of leadership – humble and loving service. This should be the underlying motivation in the exercise of leadership. Jesus presents himself as the model and asks his disciples to follow his example. St. Paul in the letter to the Philippians also highlights this:
“If there is encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking not for his own interests, but everyone for those of others. Have among you the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself taking the form of a servant, coming in human likeness and found human appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on the cross.” (Phil 2:1-8)
Society tends to regard leadership as a high position. The leader is placed on a pedestal. He looks down on his followers who look up to him. He looks at those below him as his subordinates who should obey him. He occupies the top position and is served by those below him. Thus, leadership is viewed from a vertical perspective – top to bottom – like a pyramid. This is not how Jesus regards authority and leadership. Christ the King is Jesus the servant. He came to serve and not to be served. The ultimate symbol is the washing of the feet. He lowered himself and knelt to wash the feet of his disciples. To be a humble servant. This is what servant-leadership is all about. A leader should not look at himself as above the rest, occupying the dizzy heights and feeling lonely at the top. To occupy a leadership role is not to ascend to a high, exalted position but to be humble and lower oneself. It is a descent, not an ascent, for a servant is not higher than those he serves. Thus, like Jesus this requires kenosis: self-emptying. This requires emptying oneself of pride and superiority complex -- of thinking of oneself as god-like. This also requires emptying oneself of the drive to dominate and hold on to the trappings of power, pomp and privilege, of selfishness and self-centeredness. Humble and loving service – this is what is required of a servant-leader. This is what is means to be a good shepherd.
The emphasis on servant-leadership does away with the sense of entitlement, privilege and prestige that is often associated with the position of leadership and authority. The leader should not expect or demand special treatment. The leader must always remember that, like Christ, he is sent to serve and not to be served. As servant, he is not greater or higher than those he serves. Leadership is not a position of honor or glory but of humble service – a position of responsibility. There is no room for vain-glory or pomposity.
Servant-leadership is carried out vis-à-vis the Christian community – the Church – whether at the parish or the diocesan level. The pastor is called to be the shepherd and servant of the flock. His responsibility is to gather and lead the Christian community and to lead it in the spirit of service. Community building and formation is essential that is why it is necessary to form Basic Ecclesial Communities that makes up the parish. The goal is to lead a community whose members live in communion and participate in Christ’s mission as a prophetic, priestly and servant community. In doing so it becomes a community of missionary disciples and an expression of the Church of the Poor. Thus, leadership is always service to the community of God’s people, for the good of the community. The focus of the leader’s attention is the community and not oneself or one’s personal gain. The poor in a special way are the objects of the servant-leader’s loving concern. The shepherd loves and serves the flock more than himself and is willing to give up his life for his flock.

The Church for a long time has been plagued by clericalism. This is the view of the clergy as a privileged elite class in the Church that is placed on a pedestal and wields control and power. This is often accompanied by careerism – of constantly striving for higher position in the Church. The emphasis on servant-leadership can overcome clericalism and careerism in the Church.
Servant leadership – this is what the Church needs, this is what society also needs. Emphasis on this can overcome the dark side of leadership.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Silence of the Shepherds


As the death toll of the government’s war on drugs reach over twenty-five thousand after two years, one of the questions frequently asked is: “why are many priests silent?” Day after day, the mass media report and show images of extra-judicial killings of suspected users and pushers perpetrated by police and by death squads. Yet, many if not most of the members of the clergy – with a few exceptions - remain silent even as the CBCP  came out with several pastoral letters the one of which was supposed to be read in churches all over the Philippines. So, how can the silence of many priests be explained?
Based on my own personal observation and from what I have heard, there are many reasons for this. For many priests who view their priesthood  exclusively in sacramental or cultic terms, speaking out or denouncing evil perpetrated by those in power is not part of the priestly ministry. They think their sole duty is to say Mass and administer the sacraments. They regard their ministry as purely spiritual and reject any involvement in the temporal sphere – especially on issues that they think are political in nature. So the extra-judicial killings, the abuses, corruption and criminality within the government and the police are not their concern. After all, there is separation between Church and State.
There are priests who are not aware of these killings, the abuse of power and the injustices. They live in their own world of comfort and luxury -- within the ambit of the church and the rectory. They do not know and do not care about what’s happening around them. They are far from their poor flock. They are blind and deaf to the suffering and evil around them.  So naturally they are dumb – they cannot and do not speak out.


There are priests who support these killings or turn a blind eye. They think that this is acceptable for the common good. This is the only way to solve the problem of drug addiction. Our country needs a strong leader who can save our country. They believe that he has the political will to bring about change in our land – to bring peace, to eradicate poverty, eliminate corruption and protect the environment. That is why they campaigned and voted for the president and continue to support him. They were even proud to show pictures of their iron fist salute (complete with baller) on Facebook. These priests are often annoyed and angry when the CBCP comes up with pastoral letters that they judge as critical of the present government. They believe in the official reports that those killed fought back and the government has nothing to do with the death squads. 

There are priests who are afraid that if they speak out, the president will hit back - below the belt - and expose the sexual abuses of the clergy and be called hypocrites. Others are afraid that they could be in the hit list of the death squads and martyred if they speak out.



So there many reasons why many priests – even many bishops -- are silent. Perhaps, these could be the same reasons why many religious and lay-faithful are also silent.
If this continues, the bodies will continue to pile up and reach over 70,000 victims by the end of Duterte’s term. The other problems – such as poverty and corruption will not be addressed. As the CBCP letter reminds us: “to consent and keep silent in front of evil is to be an accomplice to it.”
Let us pray that someday the priests who are silent will be able to see the evil around them, find their voice and have the courage to exercise their prophetic ministry – to form the moral conscience of their flock so that they may recognize and denounce the manifestation of evil and the culture of death and to announce the Gospel of life and freedom. Let us pray they may become good shepherds, ready to offer their lives for the flock.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Dark Side of Leadership


Nowadays, we often hear of government leaders who are incompetent and who use their position of leadership for their self-interest: they are corrupt, despotic, immoral, power-hungry, materialistic, abusive, and who are more concerned about their image or status. This can be found also in the police and military organization as well as the corporate world.  Sadly, this kind of leadership may also be found in the Church. The scandals that rock the Church are not just about sexual abuse or misconduct, but also the self-serving way leadership is exercised. Pope Francis in a homily on June 15, 2014 acknowledged the presence of corruption not just among politicians and businessmen but also some members of the clergy:
“We hear too much talk of a prelate who has become rich too and left his pastoral duty to care for his power.  So, the corrupt politicians, the corrupt businessmen and the corrupt clergy, are to be found everywhere – and we have to tell the truth:  corruption is precisely the sin that the person with authority – whether political, economic or ecclesiastical – over others has most readily at hand. We are all tempted to corruption. It is a ‘handy’ sin, for, when one has authority, one feels powerful, one feels almost like God.”
The great temptation of those having authority is to “feel powerful and almost like God” -- that one is above the law and can do anything he likes. Jesus warned his disciples about this kind of leadership: “you know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you.” (Mt 20:25)
Many of these problems and scandals may be caused by the failure to recognize and overcome the dark side. There is a dark side of leadership which has to be brought out into the open, into the light. The dark side which is often toxic and destructive brings out the worst version of the self.
From a psychological perspective, the dark side is often associated with personality disorder and abnormal behavior which has roots in the unconscious. Among the manifestations are narcissism, insecurity, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsions, despotic behavior, aggression, uncontrolled anger or intermittent explosive disorder, addictive behavior, sexual abuse, etc. More often, the underlying causes of such disorder is complex – some involving childhood psychological trauma, abuse, rejection, etc. Christian tradition often associates the manifestation of the dark side with the so-called seven deadly sins or cardinal sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Every human being, including priests, are prone to these “capital vices.”  The dark side is associated with the four cravings or basic temptations that try to dominate the life of each human being, especially those in leadership position: (1) the craving for sensual pleasure; (2) the craving for material possession; (3) the craving for power and influence, (4) the craving for popularity, fame and glory.
One basic temptation for a leader is to gratify one’s sensual desire. The leader has at his disposal whatever he wants and he can easily indulge in addictive behavior – whether it be food, alcohol, gambling, drugs or sex. The leader can spend a lot of time in the casino, cockfighting arena or the mahjong table. In order to deal with the pain – whether physical or psychological – he can become a drug addict (which is a form self-medication). Another temptation is to indulge in illicit sexual behavior/misconduct (whether heterosexual or homosexual) – keeping a mistress/or concubine, including abuse of minors.
A leader has access to huge amount of money. The big temptation is to use his position to accumulate wealth and material possessions. The dark side of leadership becomes evident when this becomes his main motivation. His heart is full of greed and avarice. He needs more to maintain a luxurious lifestyle – a palatial home, the latest fleet of cars, clothes, gadgets, etc. This is also necessary to maintain his vices and addiction – to drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex or in seducing minors.
For many politicians and government officials, a leadership position becomes a source for accumulating wealth and material possessions. This is also a means for gaining and maintaining political power. This is often associated with patronage politics. No wonder, many will run for office – as local government officials (barangay leaders, mayors, governors), as representatives and senators, as presidents. There is money in public office and government bureaucracy. Running for office requires huge amount (campaign staff, advertisement, vote-buying, etc.) and once in office, he needs to recoup his expenses and generate funds for re-election. The temptation of wealth and material possessions can also lead many police and military personnel to engage in criminal activities (kidnapping, hold-up, extortion, drug-pushing, gambling, etc.). The temptation of wealth is the main source of corruption in the government. It is like cancer that metastasize or spread in all levels – from the highest to the lowest. 
When a person occupies a position of authority and leadership, he often feels powerful. Traditionally, this power is associated with the capacity to impose his will and dominate others. He makes decisions and expects to be obeyed. He can threaten and coerce others to do his bidding, to demand respect and even fear. He can even have the power of life and death over others. He can get away with murder. This power comes with perks and privileges. He has at his disposal the wealth and resources that comes with the office. Power tends to be aphrodisiac. Sexual abuse can be an assertion of power. He thinks he is the law, that he is above the law. This is the biggest and most destructive temptation of leadership – the drive for power. How to come to power, how to exercise power and how to perpetuate himself in power. When this becomes the dominant motivating force, the dark side of leadership is fully manifested.  Lord Acton’s popular dictum is correct: power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. A person who is narcissistic and lacks a sense of remorse and guilt and who thinks of himself as god is most dangerous when he is in a leadership position.
The leader is often placed in the limelight. He is the focus or center of attention – especially from followers and the media. Honor, fame, popularity and prestige tend to accompany the position of authority and leadership. The dark side is evident when seeking fame and being conscious of one’s image become the underlying motive of the leader’s behavior and decisions. He is full of vanity. This can also be accompanied by a sense of entitlement and the expectation of being given a VIP treatment.
The biggest temptation that a leader faces is to use his position as means for satisfying these drives, to allow himself to be dominated by one or all of these drives. The account of the temptation in the desert was symbolic of Jesus’ struggle and rejection against this type of leadership – motivated primarily by self-gratification, wealth, power and privilege.
Thus, everyone occupying leadership positions are subject to one or more of these diabolical temptations.  This is part of the fallen, sinful nature of human beings.  At the core of all these is selfishness, greed and pride. The dark side is associated with ignoring or breaking God’s commandment and falling into sin. When he does this, the leader makes himself a god – failing to recognize that he is only a creature and there is someone greater than himself to whom he is accountable. He thinks that he is above the law and does not have to follow or observe the law – whether it be the divine law or the laws of society. He can easily lie, cheat, steal or use coercion or violence to get what he wants – whether it be sensual pleasure, wealth, power or fame.  He does not respect the dignity and rights of others. He does not listen to his conscience or has a dull conscience. He lacks moral compass and becomes immoral. Sexual misconduct or abuse come easy. For him, there is nothing wrong with cursing others or even God. He lacks a sense of remorse and guilt. He becomes cruel and corrupt. Having a hardened heart, he does not  care if others suffer as a consequence of his acts and decisions. All he cares about is himself. This kind of leader can be encountered in the political and economic arena. This can also be found in the religious sphere. The dark side of leadership is responsible for the reign of evil in the world -- for the corruption, violence, injustice, poverty, inequality, tyranny, violation of human rights, the destruction of the environment, etc.
The Church has been wracked with scandal and weakened due to her leaders who have been dominated by the dark side. This should never be allowed to happen again. There is indeed a need to confront the dark side of leadership in the society and the Church.  The Church must exercise a prophetic role vis-à-vis the political and economic leaders and systems dominated by the dark side. In order to be credible, this prophetic role must also be exercised within the Church and directed to Church leaders. The clergy must listen to the prophetic voices within the Church – whether priests, religious or laity. There have been saints who by their witness of life have been a conscience to the Church whose leaders have succumbed to the temptation of wealth, power and glory and failed to become good shepherds. There is a need to develop a corporate culture among the clergy where everyone is encouraged and inspired to live up to the high standards of the priesthood and those whose behavior is inappropriate or sinful can be corrected or held accountable. Such culture, while compassionate, should be intolerant of any wrong-doing. They should never cover-up the misconduct and immoral deeds of their fellow priests. Ultimately, the only way to overcome the dark side of leadership is to live in the light, to undergo a constant process of conversion and to become humble, loving, compassionate good shepherds and servant-leaders, following the example of Jesus.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Coming Down the Mountain, Evading the Death Squad

Two weeks ago (August 11) , I  almost became a victim of extrajudicial killing and the 4th priest to be killed under the Duterte Regime had I stuck to my routine.
For over four months, I have been living a quiet life as a hermit on top of the mountain overlooking the city of Cebu, spending my time in silence, solitude, prayer and writing. I usually go down to the Redemptorist monastery in Cebu twice a month to bond with my fellow Redemptorists, check my email and FB, get my food supplies and go to the coffee shop nearby before dinner. At first, I didn’t realize this routine would put my life at risk.
Since 2017, I was receiving information that the death squad was going to target priests and that I was on top of the list. When the three priests were killed, I was certain that I could be next. I even received an email message accusing me of being a drug addict. Before I left Manila last March to start my life as a hermit, I received a text message from a reliable source confirming that I was indeed going to be targeted for assassination by a death squad. When I asked him if they knew where I was my informant told me that they were still looking for me. I anticipated that if they knew that I was in Cebu, the first place that they would put under surveillance would be the Redemptorist Monastery in Cebu. I still felt confident that they won’t find my hermitage in the mountain.

On August 6, I went down to the Redemptorist Monastery in Cebu to attend the community recollection and meeting. By chance, I met the gardener who told me that several days before (on August 2) while working in the church ground, a man on motorbike with another companion asked him: “Do you know, Picx Picardal? Is he here?” He denied that I was around. He was suspicious because they did not take off their helmets and kept watching the monastery. He remembered that a month earlier, on July 7, two men riding in tandem also asked him the same question. On those two occasions, I recalled that I was in the monastery a day before so they just missed me. Upon realizing this, I became more cautious and careful not to follow my usual routine of going out.

Then on the evening of August 11, the security guard informed me that there were six men on three motorbikes with full-faced helmets near the entrance of the monastery and the church between 5 pm to 6 pm that afternoon. That was usually the time I would go out to the supermarket and the coffee shop. I immediately concluded that they were the death squad and I was the target. Had I gone out, there would have been no escape for me. I recognized  their modus operandi – that’s what I learned from a former member of the Davao Death Squad when we were documenting the extrajudicial killings years before. It was a close call. I  thank God for protecting me.
I am not out of danger yet. Some of our priests and staff noticed that men riding in tandem continue to keep watch outside the monastery for several days after that. So my superiors told me that it would be dangerous to go back to the hermitage and so I have to move to a more secure location and avoid public exposure. They are determined to complete their “project”,  otherwise, they won’t be paid.

Why am I being targeted by the death squad? Who is behind this “project”? The only explanation is because:  I preached and wrote against the extrajudicial killings for the last 20 years – since I was assigned in Davao and up to now. I was the spokesperson of the Coalition Against Summary Execution which monitored these killings and assisted the Commission on Human Rights (headed by Leila De lima) and the Human Rights Watch to investigate the killings. I also posted the Collated Report of these killings carried out by the Davao Death Squad (1998-2015) which was included in the complaint submitted to the International Criminal Court by Atty. Jude Sabio. I also helped provide sanctuary to former members of the DDS  who will be the witnesses in the ICC case. I was one of the convenors of the Network Against Killings in the PhiIippines.  I  granted interviews to the media – both local and foreign. I have also gone around the country and in the US to give talks on EJK and the Church’s response. The media  labeled me as one of the fiercest critic of the president but all I intended to do is to be a conscience of society.  So, I am not surprised that the president is mad at me. Many years before, when I was in Davao, someone warned me that I should be careful because the mayor was angry at me. He lambasted me three times in his TV program “Gikan sa Masa, Para sa Masa.” I was confident at that time that he wouldn’t order the DDS to kill a priest – after all I am not a drug addict or pusher.
Has President Duterte finally ordered my hit? Or is it just some zealous henchman trying to please him? My source informed me that that the order came from Malacanang.  But I cannot confirm it. I do not have the complete answer. All I know is that there is a death squad determined to kill me. Whatever happens  to me – whether the order came from him or not -- the blame will be placed on him for under his regime the culture of death has claimed the lives of over 25,000 people. This regime has nothing to gain in creating a martyr so those behind the project should think twice before carrying out their evil plan.
I always knew that my life would be at risk and I have accepted this as a consequence of fulfilling my prophetic mission. I am not afraid of death. I am ready to accept martyrdom if they catch up with me, but I do not seek it nor do I make myself an easy target. Thus, I have decided to temporarily vacate my hermitage up in the mountain and continue to spend my life of silence, solitude, prayer and writing in a more secure location. I will continue to speak out against evil in society through my writings and will fast and pray that the Lord will deliver us for evil. Meanwhile, I ask my friends to pray for our country and to pray for my safety. Someday, I hope I will be able to go back to my sacred space in the mountain of Busay where I intend to spend the remaining years of my life as a hermit. 

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Challenges the Church in the Philippines Faces


If we want the Church to survive and thrive we need to constantly look at the big picture and the long view.  This requires looking at the external opportunities and threats as well as our internal weaknesses and strengths. The question that we need to answer is: What are the challenges the Church is facing today and in the coming decades and how can the Church respond to these challenges?
The first challenge is that of globalization. All the nations and economies of the world are now interconnected. Globalization has been brought about by advances in technology – through means of communication and travel. The world has indeed become a global village. Globalization has brought economic progress to many underdeveloped countries. The Asian region (especially South-East Asia) has been the fastest growing economy with high GDP (gross domestic products). But this growth has not been inclusive, benefiting only the local economic and political elites and the transnational corporations. Poverty remains a problem. The poor has been left behind – including the indigenous peoples. The gap between the rich and the poor has widened.
The economic system has resulted in ecological and environmental degradation due to mining, logging, coal-fired power plants and dependence on fossil fuels. The Philippines have become one of most vulnerable countries to the calamities and disasters brought about by climate change and global warming. Super-typhoons like Yolanda and floods are becoming the new normal. The poisoning of the land, air and seas are affecting the livelihood and health of the people.
 Globalization has made possible the flow of migration – from the underdeveloped countries to the more developed economies, and from the rural areas to the urban areas. In short term, this has been beneficial economically to families with OFW and has kept the economy afloat. The Philippines has one of the most number of migrant workers. Filipinos can be found in almost all parts of the world – the Middle East, North America, Europe and in Asia-Oceania (Japan, Korea, Australia). With the lack of national industrialization and agricultural development and better job opportunities abroad will perpetuate and increase foreign and domestic migration.
What is the effect of globalization and a neo-liberal capitalist system on culture? Through technology, the liberal values of the dominant Western (European and North American) culture are influencing the local culture.  Among these values are – consumerism, materialism, secularism, autonomy, independence, sexual permissiveness, privacy, individual rights, personalism, equality, liberty, etc. Those who are easily influenced by these values are the young people and those living in urban areas. These values can easily be assimilated due to technology (the internet, social media, movies, TV, etc). Thus, there is an emerging youth culture that transcends national and regional borders. Young people from all over the world can share the same values, the same taste for clothes, music, food, and the kind of relationships that they want to have. This development can lead to a generation gap and tension. Young people and even older ones influenced by this liberal culture can be in conflict with authority figures – within the family, village, religious community and society.  If not handled well, this could lead to either alienation or rejection of family values, religion and even rebellion against those in authority. The younger generation may not be as religious as their elders. If they find religion meaningless or irrelevant, they will be searching for other meaningful forms in other religions or will adopt the secularism of the West.
These cultural and economic developments are also affecting the family. The families are getting smaller as more and more younger people – including women – are focused on their career and marrying late or never marry at all. A contraceptive mentality contributes to this. The OFW phenomenon is also weakening the family. Oftentimes, one or both parents are abroad, leaving behind their children. Lack of parental care can lead to problematic young people. This can lead to being influenced by gangs or by drugs. The weakening of the family and the more secular values of young people can also affect vocations to religious life.
Looking at the political terrain, authoritarian rule is back. Although democracy had been restored after the Marcos dictatorial rule, President Rodrigo Duterte appears to be following the footsteps of his idol– Ferdinand Marcos. He controls not just the executive branch but also the legislative and judicial branches thereby weakening the system of check and balance.   Due to the absence of genuine political parties and the prevalence of political dynasties, it has been easy for politicians to switch party and join the supermajority for their own vested interest.  Both judiciary and congress have become rubber stamps to Duterte’s political agenda. Duterte has been able to carry out his bloody “War on Drugs” with impunity which has resulted in over 20,000 extrajudicial killings of suspected users and pushers – most of them poor. He was able to declare Martial Law in Mindanao and to extend it with the support of Congress & Supreme Court. He threatened to declare Martial Law in the entire country and establish a revolutionary government.  There won’t be need for it with the way he has established political hegemony, weakened the rule of law and violated human rights.  Meanwhile, the change he has promised remains elusive: the drug problem and criminality remain unsolved, there is still much corruption in government, poverty has not been alleviated, taxes have increased, the price of basic commodities has increased, there is no peace and poor continue to suffer. Meanwhile, Duterte continues his tirade against the Church which he regards as a threat to his rule.
What is the long-term consequence of this political situation? This could lead to an economic crisis. There are less foreign investments coming in due to the political uncertainty and Duterte’s pro-China policy. His “build, build, build” policy can lead to debt-servitude to China and increase the national debt. The European Union (EU) has threatened to withdraw the GSP – the duty-free privilege for Philippine goods that enter the EU – due to the lack of respect for human rights and rule of law.  The political situation has become unstable and the economic crisis could worsen the political crisis and vice-versa. The International Criminal Court has started a preliminary examination on the complaint against Duterte on “crimes against humanity.” There is a growing resistance to the regime as more and more people become disenchanted and angered by what is happening. Even beyond the Duterte regime, the Philippines will continue to deal with weakened political institutions, with political dynasties, with voters who are easily bought and continue to elect incompetent popular and wealthy candidates. Poverty will still be a major problem. The environmental crisis will worsen. The economy will continue to benefit only a few. More and more people will resort to violence if the problems of society persist and no peace agreement is reached as the next generation could become more radicalized. 
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Church vis-à-vis this situation? Since the time of Martial Law under Marcos and over the succeeding years, the Catholic Church, under the leadership of the CBCP, has exercised a prophetic role. The Church has been instrumental in the ouster of the brutal dictator Marcos and the corrupt president Estrada. Will the Church continue to exercise her prophetic role under this regime?

To their credit, the AMRSP (Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines) and individual religious order came out with statements condemning the extrajudicial killings.  The LAIKO – the national network of lay associations and movements – also issued statements against the culture of death. The CBCP has already issued three pastoral letters – affirming the right to life (even of addicts) and condemning EJK.  But do these statements represent the position of many Catholics? 
Meanwhile, the majority of the clergy remain silent vis-à-vis the abuses of this regime – especially the extra-judicial killings, the Martial Law in Mindanao and the authoritarian rule. On the other hand, many dioceses and parishes have initiated community-based drug rehabilitation programs to address the problem of drug addiction and to prevent extra-judicial killings. Some priests and religious have also started documenting the violation of human rights and set up a network of sanctuary for the witnesses who will be presented in the International Criminal Court. A few priests are preaching against the abuses of the regime and together with some religious they are participating in protests/ prayer rallies. In reaction to all these, Duterte has criticized and cursed the Church – branding her as a hypocritical institution and calling the God we Catholics believe as stupid. He falsely accused some of the bishops and priests. Three priests have been murdered so far. Other priests have been placed on a hit list.
The questions that will continue to haunt the Church in the years to come are: What possessed this so-called Christian nation to elect this man in spite the fact that our churches are full every Sunday, hundreds of thousands or even millions attend our processions (especially Sto. Nino and Nazareno) and the record numbers attending the papal Mass (seven million). What happened to our formation/evangelization programs? How come the Church seems to be unsuccessful in forming the conscience of our people – including the clergy?  Ultimately, the question that needs to be answered: how far has the vision of a renewed Church as promoted by Vatican II and PCP II been owned and internalized?
Thus, the challenge for the Church in the Philippines is how to live the vision of the Church not just as communion and as a priestly people, but especially as a prophetic and servant Church, ready to accept suffering and martyrdom. The other challenges related to this: how can the Church truly become the Church of the Poor in face of the continuing problem of poverty. What more can the Church do in alleviating poverty? What can the Church do to help tackle the problem of environmental destruction, climate change and the resulting calamities and disasters? How can the Church promote peace amidst the spiral of violence and continuing armed conflict? How can the Church defend human rights – especially the right to life. How can the Church effectively help in stopping the killings and start the healing? How can the Church sustain and expand the efforts at ecumenical and interreligious dialogue – a dialogue of faith and life especially with Muslims - that can contribute to peace and development?

In fulfilling her mission, the Church faces the challenge of how to get more and more lay people to get actively involved not just in the liturgical celebration but also in the prophetic and servant mission. This is very urgent as number of ordained ministers remain very low – around 10,000 priests for over 90 million Catholics. With smaller families and more young people who are either secularized or pressured to follow another lucrative career due to family obligation, we cannot expect a dramatic increase of vocations to the priesthood or religious life. Thus, the Church will depend heavily on the active participation of the laity – not just as individuals but as part of BECs and lay organizations and associations and renewal movements. Their involvement in the parish and the diocese as well as in society in general is vital. The dynamism of the Church should not be dependent on the clergy but on the lay faithful who are committed and competent.
Speaking of lay participation there is a need to address the problem of the active involvement of men. While the Church at the diocesan and parish levels are led by male ordained ministers, majority of those who are involved in church activities are women – except the extra-ordinary lay ministers of communion who are men. The same thing is happening at the grassroots communities – in the BECs. While the priest-less liturgies in the chapel are presided by men, the rest of the leaders of the community and the majority of the active members are women. On the bright side, this is a welcome development for women who are demanding for a greater role in the Church. This is already happening at the grassroots. But we should not forget the men. There is a need to come up with evangelization and formation programs designed for men and to focus on promoting masculine spirituality suited for them. This is to be done without neglecting the women and their needs. Perhaps, programs that are more social action-oriented (prophetic-servant mission) might be attractive to men, rather than just focusing exclusively on liturgy and bible-sharing. Men needs more action and less talk. They need to become more aware that whatever they are doing will contribute to the welfare of the community and society. Male-bonding often takes place in the midst of praxis rather than just sharing their feelings. If ever they are going to share their problems, it will often be with other men they regard as friends. Thus, besides encouraging them to take active part in their community, it is important that they come together regularly as men to deepen their fellowship – prayer, sharing, planning, celebrating. Those who are married should be made aware of their responsibility as fathers, husband as well as co-leader of the Christian family – the domestic Church. 
The family remains a cause for concern. How to develop truly Christian families is a challenge for the Church when the family as an institution has been weakened due to migration, reduced size, and the influence of a globalized culture and technology. Family evangelization programs need to be developed as well as marriage-enrichment programs for couples. Pre-marriage/pre-Cana seminars needs to be updated.

In promoting communion and carrying out her mission – especially the prophetic evangelizing mission, the Church must make use of technology – whether in mass media and social media. The cyberspace or the internet is helpful in developing communion – connecting the members of the Church with one another and with their pastors no matter how distant they are physically. The Church needs to avail of technology to not just in imparting the teachings and doctrines of the Church but in the formation of conscience.
The participation of young people in liturgical celebrations and youth activities at the parish and diocesan levels remain high. But we cannot be complacent as the globalized secular and materialistic culture continue to influence young people. Formation/Evangelization programs for young people that will include formation of conscience and involvement in the prophetic and servant mission of the Church should be emphasized. The Church should not forget to address young people’s need for meaning and direction as well as appropriate spirituality. Hopefully, from among them will come the future priests and religious, as well as lay leaders.
Finally, the Church must address the issue of leadership in the Church which is a reflection of the crisis of leadership in society. The quality of leadership is very important if the Church is to survive and thrive and if society is to be transformed. So far, the models of leadership have been inadequate and so is the leadership-formation for clergy, seminarians, religious and lay people. Many of the clergy who are ordained are not prepared to exercise leadership roles in the parish and diocese although they may have adequate theological, spiritual and liturgical formation. Many continue to associate leadership primarily with power, privilege and status – influenced by the prevailing dominant cultural models. Thus, they turn out to be incompetent figureheads, or petty tyrants, or bureaucrats, or administrators operating in a maintenance mode. Worst of all, some become involved in sexual misconduct and corruption, lacking in conscience, failing to exercise with integrity ethical leadership. This is the kind of leadership that will weaken the Church and block Church’s renewal. Thus, the model of leadership promoted by Vatican II and PCP II must be imbibed – leadership motivated by humble and loving service (servant-leadership), being a compassionate good shepherd with the smell of the sheep. This leadership style is more participative, consultative, collegial or collaborative and inspired by vision (the vision of a Church renewed) – hence, visionary leadership. This type of leadership demands scrutinizing the signs of the times – viewing reality from a broader perspective – looking at the big picture and the long view. This type of leadership is more concerned with building up the Church as a living community rather than in building expensive churches or cathedrals. To avoid maintenance mode, this requires planning and strict implementation yet characterized by flexibility.  This kind of leadership requires courage -- the courage to speak out, to confront the wolves that threaten or wound the flock and to accept suffering and martyrdom if required. Without this kind of leadership, the vision of a renewed Church of Vatican II and PCP II will remain an empty dream -- forgotten beautiful documents relegated to the archives.
We should not expect that we can fully achieve the vision of a renewed Church in our own lifetime. It is a continuing effort, an ongoing journey. The Church, after all, is constantly reforming and renewing herself – ecclesia semper reformanda. Like the Kingdom of God, it is an “already-not-yet” reality. Hence, we must always be patient and do what we can. After all this is the work of the Spirit and we should rely on the guidance and the dynamism of the Holy Spirit. Vatican II was seen as a new Pentecost. It was just a new start. Those who started have already gone before us and it is our duty and obligation to continue what they started just as we hope the next generation will continue to do so. There is no turning back.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Responding to the Call to Solitude

It’s been a month since I started  another phase of my life – a life of solitude and silence as a hermit after so many years of active ministry.  I am living the life that I have always longed for.  Even as a young priest over 37 years ago, I was already attracted to this kind of life. But through the years, I could only spend a month each year alone on top of this mountain for rest, prayer, contemplation, reading, writing, running & biking, playing my flute & violin, practicing tai-chi, preparing dinner after fasting intermittently. It was my way of coping with the stress of missionary and pastoral ministry.  I considered this as part of the rhythm of my life – the contemplative dimension. This kept me from burning out. I came down from the mountain fully recharged to continue my pilgrim, missionary journey – evangelizing the poor, building Basic Ecclesial Communities, resisting a dictatorial regime and struggling against logging companies.
Being on top of this mountain has enabled me to have a closer encounter with my deeper self and with the One to whom I have offered my life. I have never felt alone or lonely. The mountaintop interlude has given me the opportunity to look at a big picture and a long view of my life and ministry. I have tried to live seriously the traditional image of the Redemptorist: Apostle abroad, Carthusian at home. This has been part of my effort to integrate the active and the contemplative dimension of my life as a religious priest which I try to do every day but which I need to do on extended periods.
In the midst of my busy life and hectic schedule, I always looked forward to going up to this sacred space. But I could never get enough of this. I planned to spend my Sabbatical Year here every ten years of my life. I also made a promise to spend the final phase of my life on this mountain. I built a bamboo hermitage which I could only occupy for three months since I was asked to do higher studies in Berkeley and Rome. When I came back, I spent the next sixteen years in Davao engaged in teaching, pastoral ministry, interreligious dialogue, life and peace advocacy and denouncing the killings perpetrated by the Davao Death Squad. Throughout those years, I continued my annual mountaintop interlude. I could only spend five months here during my Sabbatical due to my pastoral and academic responsibilities.
And now after over six years working at the CBCP  - promoting BECs all over the country  and denouncing  extrajudicial killings and authoritarian rule under the new regime over the last two years, I can finally fulfill the promise I made long ago. Last month, after Biking for Life & Peace from Manila to Mindanao,  I came up to this mountain to begin living as a full-time hermit.  I am occupying the room in the rest-house which I have been using annually after a typhoon destroyed the bamboo hermitage I built years ago.  In due time, I will be rebuilding with my own hands the hermitage in the woods. This will be my home for the next 10 to 20 years or more, God willing.
Some people – especially friends, confreres and fellow human rights activists – are asking why I am doing this now when there is still much I can do in my ministry and in the struggle against the forces of evil in society.
I just feel that now is the right time to answer the eremitical call. I am already a senior citizen and I want to do this before I am too old to live alone and take care of myself. I believe that this is where the Lord wants me to be at this time of my life. I won’t be active any more in organizing, giving talks or joining rallies anymore.  I will continue to struggle and speak out against evil in a different way – through prayer, fasting and writing. Echoing Mk 6:9 St. John Paul II affirmed: “Jesus himself has shown us by his own example that prayer and fasting are the first and the most effective weapons against the forces of evil.” Mahatma Gandhi said something similar: “My religion teaches me that whenever there is distress which one cannot remove, one must fast and pray.”
Coming up this mountain reminds me of the prophet Elijah whose life was threatened by King Ahab and Jezebel. He was weary and discouraged. It was amidst the silence and solitude on top of the mountain that he felt God’s presence and gave him courage to face death.  (1 Kings 19:1-14).  I did not come here to escape or hide from those who intend to end my life prematurely because of my prophetic stance – just like what they did recently to Fr. Mark Ventura.  I came here to fulfill a promise – to answer the Lord’s call to spend the remaining years of my life in solitude, silence and contemplation.  I came here to enter into a deeper communion with Him and to prepare myself for my final journey fully aware of my mortality.  I am encouraged by the words of a Carmelite hermit – Fr. Cornelius Wencel: “The solitude of the desert teaches a person to be at peace even in the face of death… The mere choice of solitude is an experience of kenosis and death. The hermit, with his childlike heart, approaches death fearlessly. He accepts it with quiet understanding and patience. He does not try to avoid death, to run away from it, or to forget the inevitable necessity of dying… By dying in Christ and rising in Christ, touching the mystery of Christ’s Passover, the hermit becomes a prophet sent to the people of today.”