For over a month, we have once again witnessed apparent display of faith which has led many, including Pope Francis, to conclude that the Philippines is a great Catholic Nation.
For nine days leading to Christmas, the churches were overflowing with the faithful for the Misa de Gallo or Simbang Gabi. A couple of weeks later, millions of devotees attended the procession of the statue of Jesus Nazareno – black Nazarene – which lasted for over 20 hours. On the third Sunday of January, millions again attended the procession of the child Jesus – the Sto. Nino – in Cebu and other parts of the country. We should not forget that around this time four years ago, an estimated seven million faithful attended the Mass presided by Pope Francis in Luneta – a world record that remains unsurpassed. We are also impressed by the devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary - especially to the Mother of Perpetual Help whose novena is held every Wednesday in Baclaran and in most of the churches all over the country.
Is the Philippines really a great Catholic nation? What is the quality of the faith of the Filipino Catholics?
Let us remember that the Catholic majority – including many priests and religious – voted into office and continue to support a president who cursed the pope, who is trying to destroy the Church, who calls God stupid, who regards the doctrine of the Trinity and the crucified Christ silly, who tells his audience not to go to church and build their own chapel, who encourages them to rob and kill bishops, who is disrespectful of women, and who is waging a war on drugs and on “enemies of the state” which has resulted in over 30,000 extrajudicial killings. This is the same Catholic majority who elected senators and representatives who are crafting laws that lower the age of criminal liability to nine years old and wants to bring back the death penalty. Majority of our politicians, government bureaucrats, police officers and military personnel are Catholics (many of them are products of Catholic schools and universities) yet many are complicit to the corruption, injustices, violence and criminality that continue to spread like cancer in our society.
So, what kind of faith do majority of Filipinos really have that gives an impression that we are a Catholic nation? The kind faith that is most prevalent is the faith that is expressed in participation in the liturgy, in novenas, in processions, in devotions to the saints, in fiestas. This is associated with popular religiosity which is often seasonal and occasional – it comes out during the advent and Christmas season, the Lenten and Easter season, and the feasts of the patron saints. This is an important manifestation of faith - the faith that is celebrated and that expresses a deep trust in the Triune God, in Mary and the saints who can intervene miraculously and make their lives better. This is the kind faith that enables them to believe and hope that God will never abandon them. In its extreme, this is the kind of faith that makes them passively wait for miracles to happen. But this can be a one-sided kind of faith unless is it accompanied by knowledge and adherence to the truths of the faith – not just the dogmas, but the moral and social teachings grounded on the Word of God as interpreted and taught by the Church. This faith has also to be lived daily and shown in one’s behavior and action – expressed in love, service, compassion, respect for the rights of others, truthfulness, honesty, etc. Without this, faith is dead. This is the kind of faith that is often absent in majority of the faithful. This explains why the so-called great Catholic nation is a nation where evil continues to reign - a nation governed by corrupt, greedy and incompetent politicians, a nation where there is so much injustice, poverty and violence, where the culture of death reigns.
While respecting and appreciating popular piety and religiosity, we should not romanticize it nor should we be satisfied with it. It is a faith that needs to grow and mature. It should not remain superficial, nominal or seasonal. There is still much to be done in terms of evangelization and integral faith formation, in doctrinal and moral catechesis, and in awakening the conscience of the faithful. Above all, our processions should symbolize our journey and march for freedom and liberation, for life, for justice and peace. We have done this before and we can do this again.
Meanwhile, we should stop calling the Philippines a great Catholic nation. We do not deserve it. Besides, there are also Christians of other denominations, Muslims and other religious groups.