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.

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