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Prophetic presence in the margins challenges religious

Those called to walk in the footsteps of Jesus face irrelevance if they fail to help outer fringes of society

Prophetic presence in the margins challenges religious

A nun joins a protest in Manila. Theologians say living the religious vows these days means living "in the margins" with those who are economically deprived, culturally weak, and politically voiceless. (Photo by Vincent Go)

Bonifacio Tago Jr., Manila
Philippines

February 7, 2017

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An Asian institute on religious life marked the third week of January this year as "Religious Life Week" with the theme "Religious Life: Prophetic Presence in the Margins," which somehow speaks of its relevance in today's world.

In following the teachings of Jesus, "religious" or "consecrated" people, are fundamentally called to "create" a community of men or women who are supposed to put God at the center of their life above everything else.

In the history of Israel, the God of Abraham, the God of Jacob, the God of Moses, and the God of Jesus, has always been on the side of the margins of society — the poor, the widows, the children, and the victims of violence and corruption.

Jesus himself was sent to "bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and new sight to the blind; to free the oppressed and announce the Lord's year of mercy," according to the Gospel of Luke.

In her talk during one of the activities last week, Dominican scholar Laurie Brink provided a biblical foundation of the "prophetic call of religious life." She called it "prophetic dialogue," which she described as "speaking forth" and "speaking against."

"Speaking forth" is preaching Gospel truth at all times, both in words and through prophetic acts, or a "life of witness," while "speaking against" is telling the truth to power as what John the Baptist did in the Gospel of Luke.

Irish missionary Diarmuid O'Murchu, meanwhile, spoke about living religious vows "in the margins," or with those who are economically deprived, culturally weak, and politically voiceless.

The religious, as "God's prophets today," says Father O'Murchu, are called to get rid of poverty, get rid of the margins, which are as diametrically opposed to what Jesus proclaimed, the reign, or the kingdom, of God, a kingdom of justice, peace, love, harmony and fraternity (equality) of all peoples.

He proposes to rename the concept "Kingdom of God" to a "Kingdom of Empowerment" because the former, if understood in the context of the kings of world history, are despots and dictators with absolute powers leaving the people poor and powerless, and even reduced to slavery.

When Jesus announced that the Kingdom of God was at hand, he did not intend to have slaves. He called his disciples friends and washed their feet as a sign of what they have to do with one another. In the spirit not only of humility, but equality and fraternity, the disciples were to serve one another and the rest of humanity.

The "Kingdom of Empowerment" is a language that is proper today.

Religious people, who are supposed to be Sequala Christi, or "walking in Christ's footsteps," are challenged to be companions of the poor in bringing about their own empowerment in a society that rejects them, uses, and abuses them.

A missionary from the southern Philippine island of Basilan has been living a "prophetic" experience in the margins for 45 years.

Claretian Father Angel Calvo was sent to the remote island of Mindanao in 1972 after his ordination in Spain.

His mission started at the height of military rule in the country. He lived with and worked for the people of the island, the majority of whom are Muslims who suffered from exploitation by big landowners and multinational corporations.

Father Calvo helped people get resettled from the ravages brought about by the conflict. He set up "human communities" using the methods of Paolo Freire's liberating education and together with a team of volunteers facilitated the education of the poor toward genuine empowerment.   

The priest was later forced to relocate in the nearby city of Zamboanga after a spate of abductions and killings of missionaries, priests, brothers, sisters, teachers, catechists, and even tourists, by the militant Abu Sayyaf group.

Again, Father Calvo found his place in the margins of Zamboanga — the street children, girls and young women who became victims of illegal trafficking, and poor urban settlers. He organized, networked, and facilitated the building of homes for people.

The work of this particular religious missionary extended into the birthing of Peace Advocates Zamboanga, which gathered together various sectors of society who are concerned with peace-building in the midst of conflict.

It has become a movement for the empowerment of marginalized sectors to reclaim their rights and dignity as human beings. It has become a movement for peace and human security that promotes freedom from want, freedom from fear, and freedom to live with dignity as human beings.

In a world of conflicts and division, the cries of the poor — those who continue to be economically deprived, the victims of violence, injustice, and crimes against humanity — reach the heavens and beg for God's justice.

The religious who are called to walk in the footsteps of Jesus are challenged to live their vocation from the perspective of the marginalized and work for and with the margins of the world, or face irrelevance.      

Bonifacio Tago Jr. is vice president for academic programs and professor of philosophy at Good Samaritan Colleges in Cabanatuan City, Philippines. He is currently taking up a doctorate degree in Theology in Consecrated Life at the Institute for Consecrated Life in Asia.

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