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Best and worst of the Church in Philippines

A year of highs and lows, but real losers were the poor

  • Joe Torres, Manila
  • Philippines
  • January 11, 2013
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Filipino Catholics, some 80 million of them according to government estimates, witnessed numerous "highs" and "lows" in the life of the Church in the past year.

It was the "best of times" with the canonization of Pedro Calungsod and the elevation of Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle to the College of Cardinals.

But it was also the "worst of times," especially for Catholic bishops who battled against the passage of the controversial Reproductive Health (RH) bill and lost.

There was also no lack of controversies that caught the attention of tabloids in the country and even abroad.

Monsignor Cristobal Garcia of the Archdiocese of Cebu was suspended and stripped of all his positions on orders of the Vatican following reports of child abuse and alleged links to the illegal trade in ivory.

Calungsod's canonization was expected, and so was the passage of the reproductive health measure in Congress despite the bishops' threats of eternal damnation. 

Tagle's elevation as a cardinal was a surprise. So was Garcia's presence in Cebu despite a case of molestation in the United States in 1980 and 1984.

But drowned by the noise of stories of saints, bishops and priests was the plight of the "people of God" who battled disasters, hunger and persecution in rural villages. 

Church workers and lay people in Mindanao had to face the wrath of armed goons and the military for taking the side of indigenous peoples and poor peasants. 

Sister Stella Matutina, a Benedictine nun, and Sister Julita Encarnacion, of the Sisters of the Assumption of Mary, were accused of working with Maoist rebels for opposing mining projects.

Missionaries, priests and activists who exposed illegal activities were branded "communists" to justify eventual arrests.

There was no lack of threats to the lives of the poor and their pastors in the countryside even as most bishops and sycophantic "religious" groups issued statements against the RH bill and called for donations "for our poor brothers and sisters." 

This is the real "low" of the Church in the Philippines: When a bishop in the province of Bulacan told farmers, who walked in protest against a government project, that they are not welcome in his diocese. 

The real "high" is when some friar, like Franciscan Pete Montallana, would live with the poor in the slums to give witness to the Gospel and celebrate Mass in the middle of ramshackle shanties.

The challenge to the Philippine Church is not its supposed "waning influence" after losing the battle against the RH bill. The real challenge is the Church's seemingly losing its grip on the fact that the poor, and their issues, are very much part of the living Gospel as much as the pontifications of bishops and priests.

The year 2012 could be the best and the worst of times, but 2013 can still be a good beginning. As C.S. Lewis would say: "...all the pages of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Someday, God willing, we shall get in."

Joe Torres is bureau chief for UCAN Philippines based in Manila

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