Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao (center), head of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, presides over the media briefing at the end of the conference's biannual meeting in Manila on Jan. 28. With Archbishop Valles are Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan (left) and Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro. (Photo by Jire Carreon)
Catholic bishops in the Philippines broke what they themselves described as their "collective silence" over "many disturbing issues" that have confronted the country in recent months.
In a pastoral statement issued at the end of their biannual meeting in Manila on Jan. 28, the prelates asked forgiveness from the faithful "for the length of time that it took us to find our collective voice."
In the statement titled "Conquering Evil with Good," the bishops admitted that they have observed how the "culture of violence has gradually prevailed in our land."
They said the bombing of the cathedral of Jolo that killed 20 people on Jan. 27 was "further evidence to the cycle of hate that is destroying the moral fabric of our country."
The prelates also said that "cruel words" aimed at church leaders "pierce into the soul of the Catholic Church like sharp daggers."
In recent weeks, the president went as far as urging people to either rob or kill bishops.
"We have silently noted these painful instances with deep sorrow and prayed over them," read the bishops' statement.
They said they took their cue from Pope Francis "who tells us that in some instances the best response is silence and prayer."
The bishops said they respect the "freedom of conscience and religion" of people, including Catholics who may have already renounced their faith.
The church leaders, however, said that "freedom of expression does not include a license to insult other people’s faith, especially our core beliefs."
The bishops admitted that when people do not understand the doctrines of the church "we have also ourselves to blame."
"Perhaps we have not been effective enough in our catechesis about the faith?" read the prelates' statement.
"Like the leaders and members of any other human institution, no doubt, we, your bishops and priests have our own share of failures and shortcomings as well."
They said some sectors have warned church leaders from issuing statements critical of the government's fight against illegal drugs. But the bishops said they are not against the government’s efforts. "We have long acknowledged that illegal drugs are a menace to society," they said.
They said that it was only when mostly poor people who were reportedly linked to the illegal drug trade were killed that the bishops started wondering about the direction of Duterte's drug war.
"As bishops, we have no intention of interfering in the conduct of state affairs. But neither do we intend to abdicate our sacred mandate as shepherds to whom the Lord has entrusted his flock," they said.
"No amount of intimidation or even threat to our lives will make us give up our prophetic role, especially that of giving voice to the voiceless."
The bishops then urged the faithful to "be sober and alert" despite the threats.
"As members of God’s flock, we must learn to be brave, to stick together and look after one another," they said.
"Let this moment be a time to pray, to be strong, wise and committed. Let this be also a teaching moment for us all, a moment for relearning the core beliefs, principles and values of our faith, and what it means to be a Catholic Christian at this time," read the prelates' statement.