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THE CHURCH AND THE PORK BARREL PROTEST
Letter to my Brother Priests in Lingayen Dagupan
My dear brother priests:
Our parishioners are angry and we too are angry like them. It should really and rightly be so. Sin and crime, corruption and cheating, abuse of the poor and neglect of the weak ones must anger us. If the magnitude of corruption among our elected public servants does not anger us, it could mean we are friends with sin. This anger cannot remain an emotional outburst. It must lead us to reflect and having reflected lead us to action. What is the pork barrel protest telling us pastors of the flock?
Beyond the Pork Barrel
The issue is beyond pork barrel. The core problem is not just the shameless corruption of a growing number of greedy corrupt officials in a system that has become corruption friendly. The issue is the breakdown of our moral fiber as a Christian nation. The issue could be the diminishing relevance and eroding credibility of moral shepherds. It is the failure of religion to make morality and ethics the foundation of all human actions and endeavours, after almost five hundred years of Gospel presence.
This is the opportune time to examine our conscience as a Church, to take responsibility for our failure to teach, and to take fresh new steps to restore morality in public and private life, which is a vital component of the Church’s mission. This is why the popes of our era have repeatedly called for New Evangelization. This same call is repeated by our Philippine bishops.
The holiness of the Church is stained not just by errors against doctrine and dogma. Christianity is not just a set of doctrines to profess; Christianity is more importantly about living like Christ. Christianity is hurt not just by heresies but by immorality and amorality by those who call themselves Christians. Morality, creed and prayer form the tripod of our Christian faith. Prayer without moral conversion is just a noisy bell. Creed without moral conduct is dry and dead. It is not the smoke of incense that will bring us to heaven. It is not the pages of our prayer books that will make us saints. It is not the glow of lit candles that makes us holy. It is the imitation of Christ that we must always aspire for. The goal of all Church programs is intimacy with and imitation of Christ.
We brother priests have failed to inspire our people to imitate Christ. We have failed to lead them to intimacy with him. Are our parishioners angered by the violation of
the Commandments “Thou shall not steal” and “Thou shall not covet your neighbour’s goods”? Or are they protesting because personal rights have been violated?
What must we do as Church shepherds?
A prophet is a mouthpiece of God; we were ordained to be that mouthpiece. We must be a prophetic Church courageous to denounce evil but this prophetic task must be balanced with the prophetic teaching of the message of Christ. Protest without alternative is a dead end path. We cannot afford to be known as a Church of denunciations and prohibitions. As we denounce evil and sin, we must in the same breath propose imitating Christ as the only alternative to our social ills. Prophetic protest must be accompanied by prophetic alternative; and the imitation of Christ is the alternative solution we offer. The loss of the fear of the Lord is the root cause of our social ills. It is not enough to condemn evil. We must proclaim the goodness in each one. Overcoming evil by the power of good is the alternative we offer. As we protest, we must immediately offer Christ as the only choice; otherwise the protests can lead to godless solutions.
The rejection of the politics of patronage, the call for an in depth investigation of dishonest officials and the cry for the full application of the law will not stop corruption unless we regain our fear of the Lord as a people.
We have chosen to be orderly and clean rather than be “messed” by the Gospel as Pope Francis put it. The “mess” that comes from God can only make us and our society better. Jesus came to disturb us in our comforts and to set the world on fire. Let us give God “permission” to disturb us, to trouble us, to make a “mess” in our interior lives so that we can become like him. A Church that is open to the “surprise troubles” of the Spirit will be a Church that is inspiring for the people because it is a Church that is faithful to the Lord. By opening ourselves to the “mess” of the Spirit, we can become a simpler Church detached from material security yet more dependent on his providence. Let us not be afraid to get our religious garbs soiled by dining with Zacchaeus. This reaching out can mean salvation for them and for us.
Sadly brother priests, we have become pastors of the status quo. We have slid down to just “maintaining” the Church, keeping the schedule, continuing the “order” of the day. This cannot continue. We cannot be swivel chair pastors. We must get out to the barangays and public schools, visit the charity wards of hospitals, teach catechism again, visit homes again—make a “mess” in society. The problem is not priest shortage but zeal shortage.
We have tolerated religiosity without godliness. We have offered Church blessings without conversion. This is not the path of the Lord. External acts of piety without inner conversion were rejected by the Lord as religious hypocrisy. Invoking blessings upon pretentious unrepentant benefactors is cheap grace. It is abominable. The Church must be compassionate because God is rich in mercy but we cannot give up our mission to confront evil and demand conversion. Offering mercy without demanding conversion is cheap religion. This is not ours. It cannot be Christ’s Church. While catechesis and religious seminars are important, conversion and repentance are indispensable parts of our mission. While it is our duty to bless and sanctify, it is first our duty to proclaim with Christ, “Repent and believe the Gospel.”
We have taught the Christian doctrines but we have failed to connect them to life. We know the faith but we do not live it. What does it matter if we know the dogma of the Trinity but we cannot live the love of the Trinity among us? What does it matter if the Ten Commandments can be recited backward and forward and yet people continue stealing and killing, cheating and coveting? What does it matter if the mysteries of the rosary are memorized and prayed and yet we make sure that Christ does not disturb us in our complacency? Knowledge of the faith without living that faith is only an ego massage. It makes us think that we are good Catholics although the reality is the opposite. Our transmission of the faith must inspire our people to imitate Christ. One of the serious problems of the people who attend our Masses is our long and winding and dry homilies. Our youth complain about lifeless and uninspiring liturgies. How can we set their hearts on fire if we ourselves are not afire for God? We must prepare our homilies. The best preparation for a homilist is not reading about the Gospel but praying over the Gospel. “The reason why congregations have been so dead is because dead men preach to them,” said Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
The Challenge for Us Priests
This is the P-O-R-K of the Church that we churchmen must let go too. No more protests without alternative—the fear of the Lord is our only alternative. No more complacent orderliness without the “mess” of the Gospel—we must smell like the sheep and get out of the swivel chair. No more religiosity without godliness—we must insist on conversion and repentance. Beyond knowledge of the faith let us live it—let us first be the example of what we teach.
The Church must always be a re reforming Church. The white walls of our churches do not grow whiter with the passage of time. The white walls become dusty, stained, cracked. They can peel off. As with the white wall, so with the Church!
Let the national news of the recent weeks about extensive corruption in governance make us more humble as moral guides and more zealous as lighthouses of morality in the midst of the storms besetting our boat. We have our own “pork” to abolish so that we can be better.
Let us examine our Church conscience, repent, rise up and truly guide the people as God would.
From the Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist, Dagupan City, August 31, 2013, my twelfth anniversary as bishop
+SOCRATES B. VILLEGAS
Archbishop of Lingayen Dagupan