24 August 2013

Pork and the Narrow Gate

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – C – 25 August 2013

Readings: Is 66:18-21; Ps. 117:1, 2; Heb 12:5-7.11-13; Lk 13:22-30

What does our faith tell us about pork? We are not referring to the meat, but to what’s hot right now in Philippine politics, which is the pork barrel scam. Not much, at least directly. However, our readings this Sunday speak precisely against the kind of corruption exhibited by the pork barrel as an institution and the outrageous lengths that it has been abused.

Ostensibly, the fund is supposed to promote development: deliver services to the poor, construct and maintain needed infrastructure, support education and healthcare, etc. That is why in its present form it is called PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund). However, it is designed from the start to promote the politics of patronage. The president decides which lawmakers get the fund and how much, and lawmakers influence how projects are implemented and which contractors get projects, all the while using taxpayers' money in order to maintain a flawed system of political dependency and loyalty. And then comes evidence of ghost projects which are non-existent projects funded by the pork barrel of senators and congress representatives. Where do the funds go? Where else but to lawmakers who allowed their PDAF to be used that way, to professional swindlers, and other parties involved in the whole operation.

In a recent press conference, Cardinal Chito was moved to tears when referring to the scam. He lamented that it was supposed to be money spent for the poor, but stolen from them by people who have lost the sense of the poor’s suffering.

As we work for genuine progress and development in this country, we are reminded that the path (daang matuwid) leading to it must pass through the narrow gate. What is this narrow gate?

This refers to Lk 13,24 which says: “"Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” Now, what does it mean to enter through the narrow gate? I would like to propose two senses.

1. We remember that following God means following His Way, not our way.

We don't ask God to conform to us, it is us who have to conform to God. We need to recognize that following God’s will is following His best-laid plan for us as individuals and as a people. When we turn away from it, we set ourselves on a road to destruction. 

In 1996, the Rev. Joe Wright led this opening prayer at the Kansas House of Congress: “Heavenly Father, we come before you today to ask your forgiveness and to seek your direction and guidance. We know Your Word says, 'Woe to those who call evil good,' but that is exactly what we have done.

We have lost our spiritual equilibrium and reversed our values.
We have exploited the poor and called it the lottery.
We have rewarded laziness and called it welfare.
We have killed our unborn and called it choice.
We have shot abortionists and called it justifiable.
We have neglected to discipline our children and called it building self-esteem.
We have abused power and called it politics.
We have coveted our neighbor's possessions and called it ambition.
We have polluted the air with profanity and pornography and called it freedom of expression.
We have ridiculed the time-honored values of our forefathers and called it enlightenment...”

His opening prayer made a stir in Congress that day. One legislator walked out, and some criticized the pastor. But when the media aired the story, the response from the public, including those from other countries, was overwhelmingly supportive of Reverend Wright.

Entering through the narrow gate means it is our values that need to adjust, not the reality of what is truly right and just. It means divesting ourselves of our burdens of personal convenience, self-interest, and prejudices, since they hold us back from passing through the gate. After all, it is God’s will that we seek, not our will; it is God’s way that we strive to follow, not our way.

2. We relearn the values of discipline and commitment.

Heb 12,11 says: "At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it."

Can you imagine parents not teaching their kids discipline and expect them to succeed later in life? Can you imagine a teacher advising students that in order to graduate all they have to do is just browse through their books and attend classes only when they feel like it? Can you imagine a music teacher telling his young ward that the surefire way to becoming a great concert artist is simply to love music and practice only when he is in the mood? Can you imagine a coach devising a plan to win championships that does not involve his players' commitment to regular practice sessions and taking care of their health? They are hard to imagine and simply ridiculous.

Can you imagine being elected as a public servant and not exercising the disciplines of integrity and putting the people’s interest first before that of the self, one’s family, and party? Unfortunately, we can, and the pork barrel scam tells us it has been happening for decades.

Now can you imagine yourself as a citizen, and being party as well to this web of corruption? Unfortunately, we also can, either by resigned acceptance of corruption as a way of life, or by actual collusion. Even as we decry the pork barrel itself and its abuses, let us also discern how we too, as individuals and as a Church, may have enabled the culture of corruption and patronage politics. In a way, a Church protesting against the pork barrel is like holding a mirror to ourselves and asking if we too in the Church could pass the test of integrity using current standards of transparency and accountability. It is also a call to action for reforms in this regard within the Church as an institution.

If discipline is important in parenting, education, arts, and sports, why not in citizenship, and why not in our life of faith as well? Yet today we hear of so many people resisting the discipline of faith, interpreting Scriptures according to their needs, and following only Church teachings that best fit their lifestyle. And then they’ll say: “Why be so hard on yourself? After all, God is love.”

Remember Heb 12,6: "for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines". And then Mt 7,21 says: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Not everyone who invokes “God is love” will be able to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Our Gospel this Sunday is a timely reminder of just what we need to do to enter the Kingdom, and help build It on earth through inclusive growth and genuine development for our people. Passing through the narrow gate is the test that determines whether our personal, ecclesial, and national striving are truly in the right path (daang matuwid). The choice before us may not be simple, but it is clear: pass through the narrow gate, or wait until we find ourselves forever barred from entering it.

09 August 2013

My Public Narrative

"I will give you shepherds after my own heart" (Jer 3,15).

The Story of I.  The calling to the priesthood came to me, I think, already during childhood. I practically grew up breathing Catholic – my parents taught me the basic prayers, we went to Church on Sundays as a family, I went to Catholic schools from kindergarten to graduate school. We were not rich or even lower middle-class, my father just had a high regard for Catholic education, and he struggled to send all of his four children to Catholic schools.

My initial motivations then were the high regard our large extended family accorded to priests and the way he commanded attention from everyone at Mass on Sundays. A wizened spiritual director in later years would tell us, we all start with impure motivations – the important thing is how we let grace purify our hearts in the end.

It came as no surprise to almost everybody who knew me then when I entered the seminary at the age of 12, a series of institutions that would be my home for the next 13 years, excluding two years off after college. To tell the story of those years would take much time, and so I would gloss over the adventures and experiences, the lessons learned and friendships bonded, by describing seminary formation as integral, that is, it is focused on developing well-rounded persons (or at least, our formators tried to do so). To put it simply, it is designed to make us first connect with our true selves, so we can have a meaningful relationship with God as a person, and also with the realities of society and the Church. To put it with even greater simplicity, formation was about getting us fall in love.

The Jesuit Pedro Arrupe said it most succinctly: “Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love and it will decide everything.”

The Story of Us. As celibates, it is most important that we don’t lose our romanticism. And so I fell in love with God and His people, this “living, pulsing, sinning people of God”. Why? To use the words of another Jesuit, Walter Burghardt, because: “For all the Catholic hate, I experience here a community of love. For all the institutional idiocy, I find here a tradition of reason. For all the individual repressions, I breathe here an air of freedom. For all the fear of sex, I discover here the redemption of my body.  In an age so inhuman, I touch here the tears of compassion. In a world so grim and humorless, I share here rich joy and laughter. In the midst of death I hear here an incomparable stress on life. For all the apparent absence of God, I sense here the real presence of Christ."

I was doing my studies in theology while the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the West raged on. Like many people, my generation of seminarians asked how those Church leaders involved were able to live with themselves knowing that they let those abuses happen, and chose to protect the Church as an institution first before the little ones who consider the Church a home. In this country at that time, we were dismayed by the way some of our bishops allowed themselves to be co-opted and corrupted by a widely mistrusted political leadership.

Yet when we went to our apostolate areas, to the slums of the city where the urban poor lived, we saw the faces of the great Body of Christ and experienced how relevant the faith and the faith-community meant to them. When I got back to my provincial diocese, I was struck by the dedication and humble service of so many fellow priests and lay leaders, kindred spirits – many of them committed, hardworking, and palpably holy.

I am not saying these things as a way to differentiate the good and the bad within the Church, much less to set myself apart. For even in the most well-intentioned priest or lay faithful among us, the seeds of hypocrisy and clericalism can grow, the corruption of pride and entitlement can happen. I feel a close affinity to Pope Francis' description of himself as "a sinner on whom the Lord has turned His gaze".

The Story of Now. Today, under the pastoral leadership and witness of this same Pope, I sense the Spirit of hope breathing much needed change throughout the Church. Yet there is much work to be done. And it is not about redeeming an institution or making faith more relevant. These are not our unique value propositions. It is about doing our perennial mission, the one given to the Church as a gift, which is also a task: preaching the Good News of salvation. It is communicating to the world the powerful message that there is a God who loves them, and that this love is especially directed to the last, the least, and the lost. And the manner of delivery is two-fold, best summed-up by a master communicator during his time, St. Francis of Assisi: “At all times preach the Gospel, sometimes with words.”

It is for this purpose that I came to AIM, to study Development Management in order to learn new tools of the trade and apply them to ministry. I like to think of what I'm doing as getting involved in the great and noble project of developing further the technology of evangelization. A priest-friend once told me sagely, “When you introduce something new, your community may either see you as an innovator or an anomaly. If you are seen as an innovator, it means they accept the change that you bring; if you are regarded as an anomaly, brace yourself for some challenging times ahead.”

I’m not sure whether I would like to be branded as an innovator, much less an anomaly. I don’t want to be tagged as a reformer or a technocrat either. Like most priests, I just want to witness to a life of faithful service. It may just happen that sometimes such a witnessing may take the form of introducing technology and innovation, or advocating for greater lay participation in Church leadership, more transparency in finances, and a stronger sense of accountability.

Another wise and holy man of this age, Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI, in his book, Secularity and the Gospel, wrote about what the Church (and the world) needs today: “We are not lacking for solid ideas. What we are lacking however, is fire, romance, aesthetics, as these pertain to our faith and ecclesial lives. What needs to be inflamed today inside religion is its romantic imagination. Solid ideas and solid programs alone are not enough. We need someone to re-inflame the romantic imagination of Christianity, a new Francis, a new Clare, a new Augustine, a new Thomas More, a new Ignatius, a new Therese of Lisieux.”

I’m not talking about me now. This call is about you. In fact, this is about everyone of us. Maybe some of you are being called to the priesthood, or to the religious life. Maybe some of you are called to the great vocation of parenthood, which is about reflecting God’s love to your children. Maybe you are called to bring Christ’s presence to your office or place of business, Christ’s wisdom to your boardroom or classroom, Christ’s care to the ER or to the grassroots. Maybe you are called to win the marketplace for Christ. Whatever calling you feel will bring a deeper meaning and profound joy to your life – will you let the Spirit inflame you with His romantic imagination, so through you and each one of us, the world may also catch the fire of God’s love?

This is originally written as a requirement for the Bridging Leadership class for the Master in Development Management 2013 course at Asian Institute of Management - Center for Development Management (AIM-CDM), Makati City. I may also use this as a testimony in the context of a small faith community or for an audience of seekers, discerning whether they are called to the priesthood, the religious life, or lay ministry within the Church.

04 August 2013

The Worldly Christian

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time – C – 4 August 2013

Readings: Ecc 1:2, 2:21-23; Ps 90:3-4,5-6,12-13,14,17; Col 3:1-5.9-11; Lk12:13-21

The Gospel reading this Sunday opens with a man from the crowd asking Jesus to mediate between him and his brother on the sharing of family property. It was customary for rabbis to be called upon to mediate disputes, but Jesus used the request to drive home a lesson on dealing with worldly riches.  It is also the theme of the other two readings this Sunday. I would like to sum up their message in three points:

1. We should not make riches our master.

This seems straightforward and sensible enough. St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises speaks of a choice we need to make: whether to follow the standard of Christ or the standard of Satan. And he cautions against taking the lure of Satan lightly for that is what makes him all the more effective. After all, the word Satan means the “deceiver”.

A few weeks ago, Pope Francis said that it saddens him to see priests and religious use expensive cars and the latest gadgets, when the money could have been used for better purposes such as helping the poor. Many people – within and without the Church – resonated with the Pope’s call to simplicity, and prompted a good amount of discernment on many of us priests.

Worse, when we let ourselves be deceived, we cause harm to others. Cardinal Chito Tagle, in his speech during the International Congress on the Eucharist in Quebec, Canada, in 2008, says that people who have exchanged the true God for idols like profit, prestige, pleasure, and control, also dedicate their lives to them – and sacrifice others to sustain the worship of their false gods. He asks: “How many factory workers are being denied the right wages for the god of profit? How many women are being sacrificed to the god of domination? How many children are being sacrificed to the god of lust? How many trees, rivers, hills are being sacrificed to the god of ‘progress’? How many poor people are being sacrificed to the god of greed? How many defenseless people are being sacrificed to the god of national security?”

Qoheleth the wise (in the First Reading) says: “Vanity of vanities!” All our toil is pointless. When our lives are mainly centered on working or gaining profit, ironically our toil is reduced to pointless vanity. This is not how God meant us to live.

2. We do not view riches as inherently evil either.

The readings this Sunday don’t say that it is wrong to acquire material possessions or dream of improving our lot. But haven’t we heard it said many times that money is the root of all evil? The text comes from 1 Tim 6,10, which actually says: “The love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains.”

It is not riches in themselves that bring people to ruin. It is the inordinate attachment to them. How do we make the distinction between a healthy regard for riches and an inordinate attachment to them? St. Ignatius has a helpful phrase we can remember: “tantum quantum”. A simple translation would be “whatever helps”. He says our purpose in life is to worship and serve God and by doing so find our salvation. All other things in the world are created and made available to us in order to achieve this purpose. Thus, concerning material wealth and such other things as knowledge or good health, for as long as they bring us closer to God, we use them. If they don’t, then their usage becomes obstacles to achieving our true purpose.

3. Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.

The point comes from Christ’s reminder in Mt. 6,19: "store up treasures in heavens, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal".  The message is related to this Sunday’s parable about the rich man who thinks he can simply hoard all his harvest in a bigger barn and live the life he wanted (eat, drink, and be merry), and why Jesus calls him a fool.

The Fathers of the Church have generally interpreted this parable to mean our social obligation not to abandon the poor and the needy. Their position is well summed up by Venerable Bede: “The reason the Lord reproved the man who tore down his barns in order to build bigger ones was not that he cultivated the earth and collected its fruits into his barns, but that he did not divide with the poor what went beyond his needs–in which case he wouldn’t need larger barns–but instead built larger barns in which to keep them for himself.”

And don’t think the message is only for the materially rich. One can be poor and be inordinately attached to money. Another extreme that a Christian needs to avoid is romanticizing poverty. Renowned lay preacher Bo Sanchez narrates his conversion from this particular point of view in his book “8 Secrets of the Truly Rich”. He said an incident has become chiseled in his memory, and he was never the same again after it happened.

After one prayer meeting, a woman with her small daughter approached him and asked, “Bo, can you pray over me?” “Of course”, he smiled, “what can I pray for?” “Tomorrow is the last day for my daughter’s enrollment and I have no money…” She quietly sobbed, clutching her daughter to her waist. She explained that she’s been praying to God but it seems as though nothing was happening. “Bo, please pray over me that God will increase my faith.”

He became curious. “How much money do you need exactly?”, he asked. “P700”, she said. “P700? P700 only?” He couldn’t believe his ears. “It’s a monthly instalment thing”, she explained. At that precise moment, he wanted to pull out his wallet and give her the 700 bucks. He wanted to say, “Look sister, I don’t have to pray over you. Here’s the money and go home!” But he couldn’t. No matter how much he wanted to. Because as he stood there in front of her, he knew that he only had P20 in his wallet. P20!

So what did he do? He prayed over her. After he laid his hands over her, she thanked him and bid farewell. He said: “Believe me, I’ve done a lot of difficult things in my life. But one of the most difficult was watching this lady and her daughter walk out of the room empty-handed.”

When they disappeared through the door, he sat down on a chair and felt a deep pain inside. A prayer formed in his heart: “Lord I don’t want his to ever happen again. Oh, to have money to help others! Help me help them.”

Fast forward a few years later. Bo Sanchez now earns enough to send a few children to school. And he says the feeling is incredible. 

Material wealth, physical beauty, good health – all these things pass away, some even before we reach the grave. The beauty about storing treasures in heaven is that it doesn’t just prepare us for the life hereafter, it also paves the way for a meaningfully happy way of life even now.

Adapted from my homily on the same theme and readings three years ago.