Sunday, February 25, 2007

Celebrating EDSA People Power

Today, 22 years ago, the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos was ousted peacefully by hundreds of thousands of Filipinos that gathered at EDSA - the highway between Camp Aguinaldo and Fort Bonifacio. I was at that time in a distant barrio in Mindanao - hearing the good news on the radio. I had been grieving over my mother's death (she was killed by military men) and was wondering whether it was time to leave the priesthood and join the armed struggle against the government. The ouster of Marcos through non-violent means made the armed option unnecessary. Deep within, it affirmed my faith in the reality of God's liberating presence in the history of our people. Out of joy, I wrote this poem:

Psalm of EDSA

Ring the bells, blow your horns
light the fireworks, let the dance begin
in the barricades, streets, camps and homes.
Proclaim to the whole world the good news:
the dictator has finally fled to Hawaii!

This is the moment we have longed for
the moment of our deliverance!

They who put their trust in their armies
have been put to shame
by the multitudes of men, women and children
emboldened by the power of the cross
led by the frail widow of the man
who gave his life on the tarmac.

The instruments of terror
have unwittingly been converted
into forces for freedom
embraced and protected by the people.

The armalites, tanks and helicopters
were powerless against the risen people
ready to offer their bodies and blood without taking life
armed with their prayers, tears,
rosary beads, carved images of the Mother and Child,
crosses, flowers and food for the bewildered troops.

Let us praise and thank the Lord,
the God who is never blind, deaf nor powerless,
the subversive God
who has always been with us in our struggle
throughout the archipelago
who is present at EDSA
and who will accompany us on our journey
to the land of promise - a land flowing
with peace, justice and prosperity.

Let this moment be etched in our hearts
for we have shown to the world
the saving power of God!


Twenty-two years later, the euphoria is gone. It was a brief moment in our history when we were proud to be Filipinos. We thought that it would be followed by a transformed society. It was an Exodus, but we have not reached the promised land -- we are still wandering in the desert.

As I look at our society today, the situation has not radically changed. The dictator is long gone and dead. But the problems that plagued the people remain - widespread poverty, inequality, foreign domination of our economy, corruption in government and the military, the spiral of violence, extrajudicial killings, the culture of death, environmental degradation. Most of our politicians have the same attitude as the politicians during the time of Marcos -- greedy, corrupt, self-serving. Our president is no better than Marcos.

We have changed the political system , we have changed our leaders but we as a people have not undergone a process of conversion. The spirit of EDSA - of people power - seems to be gone. How long do we have to wander in the desert? When will we ever reach the promise land?

The desert is place of purification - a place of growing up as God's people. It is a place that we need to go through before we can enter the promise land.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Christian-Muslim Dialogue of Life and Faith

This afternoon I attended a gathering of Muslims and Christians belonging to the Silsilah Dialogue movement. This is a group that come together occasionally to engage in an ongoing dialogue of life and faith. We prayed together, shared our faith and experiences and ended with a meal - table-fellowship.
I was impressed by the friendship and mutual respect among the members of the group. I liked the sharing of Ustadz Muhammad, a Muslim scholar and religious leader. He talked about Islam as religion of peace and how the terrorists misrepresent true Islam. He spoke about Jesus in a very reverent manner and the need for Christians and Muslims to live in harmony and peace. He seemed to be well versed not only with the Qur'an but also with the Bible.
I also shared my own conviction that Christians and Muslim have so many things in common in spite of differences. We believe in the one God, in Abraham as our father in faith, in Jesus the Son of Mary (Isa ibn Maryam) as the prophet (al Nabi) and the messiah (al Nabi) whose birth was announced by the Angel Gabriel (Jibril), who suffered on the cross, and ascended to heaven and who will come again in the last days. Jesus does not only belong to the Christians but also to the Muslims (although they do not believe in his divinity). Thus, Christians and Muslims are not just neighbors and friends, they are also "relatives."
I have been actively involved in Christian-Muslim dialogue for the last seven years. It started during the height of the armed conflict between the Government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Together with Ustadz Mahmoud Adilao and Monsignor Jimmy Afable, we organized a Caravan for Peace across the war torn area. Over a thousand Christians and Muslims abourd trucks and buses journeyed towards Cotabato and set up a peace camp to pressure the negotiators to come to a peace agreement. During the journey for peace, we prayed together and shared meals together and established a bond among ourselves. Because of that Ustadz Adilao and his family became my close friends. Last year, I visited his home during the Eid Fitr and shared a meal with his family.
Another unforgetable moment was a visit I made to a mosque in Davao. I was accompanied by Sr. Marianella and Zuhaira. We entered the mosque during the midday Friday prayer and stayed at the back and prayed silently. The Imam - Eldio - invited me to speak to the Muslim worshippers after his sermon. I spoke for five minutes about our common religious heritage - the One God, Abraham, Jesus the Son of Mary - and how Christians and Muslims are should live in peace. Afterwards, we went to the home of the Imam for lunch - table-fellowship! Over the years, I have occasionally met the Imam during the various prayer rallies for peace in the city.
Zuhaira (or Pong) has become a very dear friend. She is a Muslim who is not only pretty but also intelligent and kind. We first met in Zamboanga six years ago during a Silsilah intensive seminar. I occasionally go out for dinner with her and Sr. Marianella. She told us that when she get married in a Muslim ceremony, Sr. Marianella and I will be one of the sponsors.
All these experiences have given me a positive regard for Muslims and for Islam. I firmly believe that Christians and Muslim can live in peace and work together for peace.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Loving your Enemies: Ending the Spiral of Violence

"Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you... If anyone slaps you on the cheek, turn the other cheek as well." (Lk 6:27, 29)

Today's Gospel reading is one of the texts that I always found difficult to preach about in the past, especially during the dark days of the Marcos dictatorial rule.

I remember telling my novice-master 30 years ago that I could not accept this teaching. Two years earlier I had been released from prison after being tortured and imprisoned for seven months. I told my novice-master - "How can you expect me to love and forgive my torturers?" To do so would be to condone the abuses, the human rights violation, and the oppression under the dictatorial rule.

After my mother was robbed and killed twenty years ago by a gang composed of off-duty military men, it became even more difficult to accept this teaching. Love and forgive those who killed her? Anger and the desire for revenge filled my heart. I was just waiting for the results of the snap election called by Marcos before making a decision whether leave the priesthood and join the armed struggle. I remember asking for a sign from a God that I found difficult to believe in.

One month after my mother's death, I received the news that those who killed my mother were killed in an encounter with the police while robbing another house. There was divine justice after all.

Another month later - on February 21-25, 1986 - the most unbelievable event took place - millions of people massed at EDSA after a failed coup attempt and faced the troops, tanks and helicopters of the Marcos dictatorial regime. The people were ready die but not to kill. Many were kneeling and praying in front of the tanks. Some girls were giving flowers to the soldiers. Women were giving the soldiers food. A priest was embracing a soldier. This was the gospel in action - love your enemies! After four days, the dictator stepped down and fled to Hawaii. No blood was shed.

Two years later, I witnessed a similar event in San Fernando, Bukidnon. Our mission team had been organizing and mobilizing the Basic Ecclesial Communities to struggle against the logging companies that were denuding the forests and destroying the environment. The people barricaded the roads, so that no logging trucks could pass. They fed the drivers of the logging trucks and treated them as friends. One day, while celebrating the mass in the barricade, a platoon of soldiers came to break up the barricade. They began beating the people with their truncheons. But the people, did not move and allowed themselves to be beaten without putting up a resistance. They continued singing the Our Father, while crying. They did not harbor any hatred or ill feelings towards the soldiers. And when the soldiers drag the parish priest to bring him to prison, the people also climbed the trucks because they too wanted to be imprisoned. The soldiers gave up and released the priest. This was reported in the newspapers and TV, and the conscience of the new president (Cory Aquino) was moved and she suspended the licences of the logging companies. A year later, the people continued their struggle and demanded a total log ban using the same peaceful, non-violent means. Their demand was granted and Bukidon became the first province where a total log ban was declared by the government.

These two events made me appreciate Christ's teaching about loving our enemies and doing good to those who hate us. It does not mean tolerating evil or allowing injustice and oppression to continue. It means that in our struggle against evil, we are not driven by hatred or revenge but by love and compassion - for the enemies. It means being ready to suffer and die, but not to kill or make others suffer. It means not using evil means in our fight against evil. This requires ultimately forgiveness and reconciliation. This is that path of non-violence. This is the only way to end the spiral of violence. It only the power of love that can triumph over evil.

The great social transformations that have taken place in the 20th century were effected not by the use of force or arms, but by applying Christ's teaching of love and non-violent resistance. Mahatma Ghandi was inspired by the Sermon of the Mount and made it one of the inspiration of the non-violent struggle of the Indian people against the British Empire. Martin Luther King made use of it in the struggle for equal rights. Nelson Mandela and his movement succeeded in ending apartheid through non-violence. Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe also collapsed without bloodshed.

All of these followed the way of Jesus - the way of love and compassion, of peace and non-violence, the way of the cross.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

What's wrong with my heart?

I got the results of my medical check-up the other day and saw a cardiologist yesterday. I am still trying to come to grips with the bad news. High cholesterol level, high blood sugar level, high blood pressure, atherosclerotic aorta, ischemia at the inferolateral wall of the heart, and some problem with the liver. All of these add up to what is called syndrome X. In other words, the risk of a stroke or a heart attack is very high. I could drop dead anytime, like my father (he had diabetes and hypertension, and had a stroke and a fatal heart attack).

I thought that I was immune to heart disease since I have run marathons in the past and have been doing a lot of long-distance cycling. But a few months ago, while biking for over 4 hours across the steep mountain trails of Samal Island, I felt some chest pain. I had to stop and lie down. I was asking myself if I was having a heart attack. But the pain disappeared after 15 minutes. So I thought it was just the gas pain after drinking Coke. Looking back now, it appears that I had angina pectoris. There was not enough blood and oxygen getting to the heart because of the atherosclesis in the aorta and the ischemia.

I still have to do more tests this Monday (stress test, ultrasound, etc) to determine the gravity of my condition. I hope things are not as bad as it seems.

Meanwhile, I will have to watch my diet, exercise moderately, take some medication and supplements, learn to relax, avoid stress, etc.

I have become more aware of my mortality - I could die tomorrow or 50 years from now. I am not afraid of death, but I hope I live longer - there is still so much to be done.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Celebrating Valentine's Day - Alone

Here I am at Basti's Brew - my favorite coffee shop - enjoying my capuccino. I see lovers around me celebrating Valentine's Day.

I am all alone this time. The last time I was here was over two weeks ago - with Yna, Lucy and Kristine. We had just finished our farewell dinner for Yna in a nearby restaurant and crossed over here for our usual capuccino and dessert. This is where we usually meet regularly for the last 3 years to enjoy each other's company and talk about each other's problems, hopes and dreams. With Evelyn and Yna in their respective convents in Manila now, and in the absence of a quorum, we won't be able to hold our regular "meetings."

So meanwhile, I am enjoying my capuccino alone facing my computer, oblivious to the lovers around me. Strange, I don't really feel lonely.

"I am not really celebrating Valentine's "(I tell myself). This is a day for lovers, not for celibates like me.

It is best celebrated with someone very special -- with someone you really love deeply and with whom you really want to commit yourself to. I have given up that kind of love when I committed myself totally to God and his Kingdom. But I have not given up the capacity to love people - although it may be a different way of loving.

The vow of celibacy and chastity is vow to love God and people passionately -- with all my heart, my mind, my soul. This love is expressed in deeds of charity, service, compassion and care for people -especially the poor and needy. The Greek word for this kind of love is Agape. It is different from Eros.

It would be inappropriate for a celibate like me to be involved romatically and sexually with another person. Yes, I may have close friends but there are boundaries that I will never violate.
It is difficult but it has be done - I have to maintain a safe distance, especially from women I am attracted to. Here's a poem I wrote a long time ago.

Safe Distance

From a distance I gaze at you

How I long
to touch you
and to be touched by you.

But I'm afraid
I might have amnesia.
I might forget
who and what I am
and the promises that I have made
to God.

I'm more afraid
that I might remember
that I am human
and I have needs
that cannot be ignored.

Forgive me
I cannot move any closer
to bridge this formidable gap.

You will remain
a distant figure
a face and a name
that will haunt my imagination.

What a fool I am
a fool for Christ's sake.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Saying goodbye to a friend

I said goodbye to Yna this afternoon. She was leaving for Manila to start her formation as a postulant of the Cenacle Sisters.

Yna is a pretty young woman who had recently been promoted to a supervisory position in her office. She has been a reader in our Church for over 10 years and a member of the parish liturgy commission. We've been close friends for more than two years. We frequently go out together with 3 other friends for cappuccino and dessert after supper. We jokingly call the group the SFMD (Society of the Foot and Mouth Disease). No, it doesn't refer to the disease of animals. We just love to go places (foot) and talk (mouth). We talk about a lot of things - life in general and their hopes & dreams of the future.

Last summer, one of the members (Evelyn) decided to go back to her religious order which she left 10 years ago. And this afternoon, Yna left to pursue her religious vocation. I will miss them. Meanwhile, in the absence of a quorum, the SFMD is in recess until further notice (that is whenever, they come home for a visit).

I find it unbelievable that two of my dear friends would discover (or rediscover) their religious vocation. I don't take credit for that, although they tell me that our conversations over cappuccino have helped clarify the direction of their life. I was moved by Yna's note thanking me for my "words of encouragement, inspiration and challenge" and for "being a light at night time and a gentle breeze during the day" in her journey.

Yna reminds of a very dear friend I met when I was a newly ordained priest in Tacloban. Her name was Gina. She was a very beautiful young woman who read in our Church and a student in engineering. I was attracted to her but I was careful not to violate our boundaries and to maintain a celibate friendship. She later joined a contemplative order (Poor Clares) and we have maintained our friendship through the years although we do not see each other often.

With friends like them, celibate existence is less lonely and more bearable. It made me realize that friendship with women is not necessarily a threat to my religious vocation. It can be mutually enriching and can help us be faithful to our respective vocation and draw us closer to God. Celibacy does not mean giving up our capacity to love, it is a way of loving - chaste, non-possessive and non-exclusive. I never want to become a loveless, grumpy old celibate.

I thank God for the gift of friendship - for friends like Yna and Gina.
I like the way Italians say goodbye - arrividerci (Until we see each other again). We actually don't say goodbye to friends - we only say - til we meet again.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Conducting a Clergy Retreat

I just came back from Cebu after conducting the annual retreat for the clergy of the Dipolog diocese, 52 priests and their bishop attended. The theme of the 4 day retreat was: "A Renewed Clergy for a Renewed Church."

The retreat was meant to enable the priests to review their life and ministry using as a framework a theology of ministry based on the Second Vatical Council and the Plenary Council of the Philippines. This framework emphasizes that ordained ministry has four dimensions: pastoral ministry, prophetic ministry, sacramental/liturgical ministry and social ministry. The retreat has 3 important components: 1)the presentations/talks given by me (the director), 2) the individual reflection/meditation, 3) the small group sharing (vicariate level and by peer group).

Day 1 Monday
6:30 pm - Dinner
8:00 - Opening Eucharist/Orientation

Day 2 Tuesday
7:00 am - Breakfast
8:15 Morning Prayer
8:30 Presentation 1: Pastoral Ministry (Ministry of Pastoral Leadership: Forming and Leading the Christian Community/ Basic Ecclesial Communities)
9:45 Individual Reflection/Meditation
11:00 Small group sharing (by vicariate)
12:00 lunch break
3:00 pm Presentation 2: Prophetic Ministry (Ministry of the Word: Forming and Leading a Prophetic, Evangelizing and Witnessing Community)
4:15 Individual Reflection/Meditation
5:30 Eucharist
6:30 Dinner
7:30 Holy Hour
8:30 Peer Group Gathering/Conversation (by age groupings)

Day 3 - Wednesday
7:00 am Breakfast
8:15 Morning Prayer
8:30 Presentation 3: Sacramental/Liturgical Ministry (Forming and Leading a Priestly/Worshipping Community)
9:45 Individual Reflection/Meditation
11:00 Small Group Sharing (vicariate level)
12:00 lunch break
3:00 Presentation 4: Social Ministry (Forming and Leading a Servant Community - that works for justice, peace and the integrity of creation, and for social trasformation)
4:15 Individual Reflection/Meditation
5:30 Eucharist
6:30 Dinner
7:30 Holy Hour
8:30 Peer Group Gathering/Conversation

Day 4: Thursday
7:00 Breakfast
8:15 Morning Prayer
8:30 Presentation 5: Celibacy and Ministry (Appreciating the Value of Celibacy and Living it More Meaningfully and Authentically)
10:00 Film Showing: The Crime of Padre Amaro
12:00 Lunch break
3:00 Presentation 6: Facing the Dark Side and the Responding to the call for to Ongoing Conversion.
4:30 Communal Penitential Celebration/Confession
5:30 Closing Eucharist
6:30 Dinner