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Philippines Church tries to stem the exodus

Other religions compete increasingly with Catholics

Philippines Church tries to stem the exodus

Filipinos attend a Mormon church in Manila

Ronald O Reyes, Tacloban

August 23, 2013

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Born into a big Catholic family, Jason Morales says he was “enlightened” by the Mormons when he was 17 years old.

He grew up in Tacloban in the central province of Leyte, the home of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, where poverty rates rank among the lowest in the Philippines. But Morales lived in a neighborhood where illegal drugs and petty crime were rampant.

What attracted him to the Mormons was their outright prohibition of drugs, alcohol, smoking and “other practices that are not good for your health,” he says.

Seeing the positive influence that Mormonism had in Morales’ life, six members of his family joined too, abandoning Catholicism.

A rising body of evidence suggests that Morales and his family are among a growing tide turning their backs on the majority faith in the Philippines.

Nearly one in 10 Filipino Catholics is considering leaving the Church, according to a survey earlier this year by pollster Social Weather Stations. Meanwhile, weekly church attendance has fallen to an all time low of 37 percent of the population versus 64 percent in 1991.

The reasons behind plummeting attendances are complex and perhaps as much to do with new distractions like the internet and video games as they are the lure of competing religions, according to social scientists.

Others claim that congregations have become complacent, or worse, bored.

Marie Benusa says she got turned off by Catholicism for a number of reasons including what she perceived to be rising indifference to the messages being delivered from the pulpit.

“For instance, people don’t listen to the priest during Mass. [It makes] me wonder how serious the Church is about taking care of its parishioners,” she says.

Looking for something different and meaningful, Benusa turned to Buddhism.

According to another set of findings by Social Weather Stations, which may concern the Church, only 29 percent of Filipino Catholics consider themselves “very religious” compared to 38 percent of Muslims, 43 percent of followers of Iglesia ni Cristo, an independent Christian religion based in Manila, and 50 percent of Protestants.

Explanations vary as to what is causing this waning faith. With more than 10 million out of a total estimated population of about 90 million people working overseas, one factor could be the influence of foreign societies where Catholics are in the minority, particularly the Middle East, a popular destination for Filipino migrant workers.

Janice Chicote who works as a massage therapist in Saudi Arabia gives mixed reasons behind her decision to convert to Islam.

On the one hand she says her new faith helped her overcome depression and loneliness in a foreign land. In hindsight, she says she felt “confused” by the 10 Commandments, prompting her to question the Church.

“I find Islam is perfect. Everything was made clear to me and all my questions were answered,” she says.

Father Roy Cimagal, a Catholic school chaplain in the central province of Cebu, acknowledges that Church leaders are “partly to blame” for the exodus to other religions.

Although he accuses other faiths of using “aggressive proselytical methods,” Fr Cimagal says that many Catholics remain ignorant about their own religion, a suggestion that the message is not getting through from the Church itself.

“The clergy, and the laity, must do a lot more personal apostolate,” he says.

Not all indicators point to bad news for the Church, however.

Despite the recent series of independent surveys that point to dwindling congregations and a loss of faith, the Catholic Directory of the Philippines says it counted six million more Catholics over the past two years, 76.18 million this year compared to 70.4 million in 2011. The number of baptisms also climbed by 160,000 over the same period to 1.37 million, according to directory figures.

“It could be because the population is growing,” says Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz.

But these numbers point to a rise sharper than population growth which stands at an estimated 1.7 percent per year as the birth rate gradually slows with greater use of birth control in the Philippines.

Regardless of the figures, Fr Amadeo Alvero of Palo archdiocese in Leyte province warns that religion should not be viewed as a competition.

“If one group is growing we must respect its growth,” he says.

Catholics “should try our very best to grow, not only in number, but in faith and in our love for our fellow men, especially the poor,” he adds.

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