Pope’s Visit Spotlights Church in Philippines
By “Awake!” correspondent in the Philippines
WHEN Pope Paul VI emerged from his jet plane in Manila to a red-carpet reception led by the president of the Philippines on November 27, 1970, history was being made. It was the first visit of a pope to the Far East and to the Philippines, which has been a predominantly Catholic country for over four hundred years.
The Pope’s visit threw the spotlight of publicity on the Philippine Catholic Church as never before. It was, in the words of a pastoral letter released by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, “an occasion to question the Catholic life,” and “an hour of self-examination.” One writer said that the Pope came to a “church in ferment,” while the Manila Times of June 13, 1970, commented that the church “faces perhaps the gravest challenge to confront it in 400 years in the Philippines.”
Why the ferment, the challenge and the need for self-examination? A look at what has been said publicly, mostly by Filipino Catholics themselves, is very revealing.
Many Religiously Ignorant
As early as June 9, 1970, the news bulletin of the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Fides, while praising the Roman Catholic spirit of the Filipinos, admitted that “there is still a great deal of ignorance on the part of many Filipino Catholics.” It said that “religion at times tends to become superstition.” This was confirmed by Rufino J. Cardinal Santos, Archbishop of Manila, who was quoted as saying: “The greatest problem facing the church, however, is the ignorance of the faithful, insofar as the fundamentals of our religion are concerned.”
But why is this? Why are even those viewed as “the faithful” by the church religiously ignorant? One factor, pointed out by Pacifico Ortiz, rector of Ateneo University in Quezon City, is that the church does not have enough priests to care for a population that is now almost 38 million.
The Vatican bulletin Fides concurs, saying that in the Philippines there is an average of one priest for 5,865 Catholics, “but only about half the clergy is directly involved in parish work and the increase in priests is tending to fall behind the increase in population.” Because of this, according to the Manila Times of June 13, 1970, a large number of Catholics living in villages see a priest only once a year or not at all. But is the shortage of priests all there is to this matter of widespread religious ignorance?
Identified with the Rich
Linking the shortage of spiritual shepherds with the Pope’s visit, priest Ben A. Carreon had this to say: “The Pope might shed tears over the numerous priestless communities in the hinterland where flocks without shepherds cry out in vain for priestly ministry even as hundreds of priests cluster in religious communities to teach children of the elite how to diagram sentences, speak flawless English and be successful executives.”
Other writers similarly refer to the church in the Philippines as being popularly identified with the elite few who control much of the country’s wealth.
To show why people generally identify the church with the rich, the Sunday Times Magazine of November 15, 1970, published an article entitled “The Church and Its Properties.” The writer claims that if one were to liken the Catholic Church in the Philippines to a commercial business it could easily be listed as among “the top ten corporations in the country.”
To back up his statement he pointed to the archdiocese of Manila, the wealthiest in the nation. The article says that Mariano Gaviola, secretary-general of the Bishops Conference of the Philippines, confirmed that the church had assets at the Philippine Trust Bank worth between 25 and 30 million pesos (about $6,375,000 to $7,650,000), plus substantial shares in the Bank of the Philippine Islands, the San Miguel Corporation and the Monte de Piedad & Savings Bank. In addition the church has large interests in a radio station, a newspaper, a travel agency and a hospital. And through a subsidiary it owns and operates schools.
So the religious ignorance of Filipino Catholics is not simply due to a shortage of priests. Rather, the available priests are often concerned with other matters.
Not Practicing What They Preach
Catholics in the Philippines acknowledge that another serious problem faces the church. Rodolfo G. Tupas, Sunday Times Magazine writer, feels that “the greatest task facing the Church is the challenge of practising what it preaches.”
Twice this past year the Filipino bishops have spoken out against corrupt government officials, but other observing Catholics feel that the biggest share of responsibility for this problem should be placed at the feet of the church. Bishop Gaviola, for example, admits that “when the bishops condemn graft and corruption in the government or speak against the misuse of wealth, some people wonder whether it is not a case of the pan calling the pot black.”
Also pointing to the church, columnist Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil noted in her column on November 15, 1970, that Filipinos are the kind of people the church made. Two weeks later the same writer wrote that since the church in the Philippines has long been part of the nation’s political power it must now assume responsibility for ancient wrongs and injustices in the community.
Further, Alfredo Roces in his column in the Manila Times of June 3, 1970, said that the Pope’s visit would spotlight the Philippines as a Catholic nation for hundreds of years, and so the question is: What can the people show for it? Rufino J. Cardinal Santos himself admitted: “Whatever is the condition of the country, politically or otherwise, it reflects on the church.”
Is it just “sheer coincidence,” as one writer put it, that “there just happens to be more poverty, more social inequality, a smaller and later drive towards modernism in traditionally Catholic countries”?
These are not the accusations of atheists but are the sincere questions of Philippine Catholics. These are conditions that make Catholics everywhere ask whether their religion really is producing good fruits.
Appeal to the Youth and to the Poor
The foregoing are some of the problems that confronted the Pope during his three-day visit to Manila, November 27-29, 1970. It is not surprising therefore that, in addition to celebrating three masses during his visit, the Pope went out of his way to meet those who have been neglected or alienated by the church, namely, the youth and the poor.
Throughout Christendom it is widely known that young persons are turning away from the churches, and this is true in the Philippines too. Thus while he was here the Pope made an appeal to youth at the University of Santo Tomas, where he addressed a student rally and commended the dynamism of youth today.
The poor are another group that need attention, and so the Pope also appealed to them. In the slum section of Tondo, he visited the home of a poor family of ten, on which occasion he said: “I feel it is my duty to proclaim here before you that the Church loves you, loves you who are poor.” He continued, in a tacit admission of the church’s past neglect: “And so I must also say that the Church must show you love, give you assistance, and aid you also in a practical way and with her generous service.”
The Pope was thus facing up to the reality of what Bishop Gaviola had referred to several months previous: “If we lose the labor class and the youth, the church is bound to crumble.” But could it be that these groups are already lost? that the barn door, as it were, has been closed after the horses are gone?
As the Pope arrived, the Asian Bishops Conference, which was attended by bishops from fifteen Asian countries, was in session and gave much consideration to the same matters, as evidenced by its themes, “development of peoples of Asia” and “pastoral care of university students.”
The bishops’ committee in charge of pastoral care of university students noted that “60 percent of the Asian population is under 25 years of age.” This fact, it said, “adds a note of urgency to the growing Asian student activism.” The bishops also resolved that the Catholic church shall be the “Church of the Poor.” But will such a resolve convince the poor and win them over to a church that has long been identified with the rich?
Is It the Christlike Way?
Observers could not help noticing the emphasis placed on material social work rather than spiritual needs of the people. Thus a writer in the Daily Mirror of November 30, 1970, said: “Paul is modern. Attuned to a growingly agnostic, if not atheistic, world that considers the mention of God’s name a folly, Paul VI in his speeches made few references to the old-fashioned Catholic bywords of redemption, sanctification, salvation. In their place he uttered words with a sociological ring to them: brotherhood, harmony, cooperation, dynamism, social justice, peace.”
The question remains, however: Is this the Christlike way? Well, Jesus pointed to God’s heavenly kingdom as the means to bring about the reforms needed by mankind. But Dr. Benito F. Reyes, President of the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila (City University of Manila), himself a Catholic, recently said of the Catholic church: “Its purpose seems no longer heaven; its goal now seems to be largely earth. It has big temples and magnificent altars; but it has small faith and very little love.”
But does not the Bible show the need for Christians to care for those physically in need? Yes, but note what the Bible also says in this regard: “The form of worship that is clean and undefiled from the standpoint of our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their tribulation, and to keep oneself without spot from the world.” (Jas. 1:27) So keeping “without spot from the world” is also a vital Christian requirement. It is evident, however, that the Catholic church is very much a part of this world.
Further, when the early Christians cared for the needs of widows, did they make this the main thing? Well, you can read in the Bible that, while Jesus Christ and his apostles did not ignore the physical needs of their fellowmen, at the same time they did not shift the primary emphasis from the teaching of the Word of God to the serving of tables. The apostles said that they should rather devote themselves “to the ministry of the word.” The result? “Consequently the word of God went on growing.”—Acts 6:4, 7.
Well, is the kind of religion the Pope is advocating Christlike? Not in the opinion of Filipino Catholics, such as Dr. Benito Reyes, quoted earlier, who sadly observed: “The Christianity we profess is a degenerate form of religiosity completely different from the simple, kindly, and loving Christianity taught by its divine founder.” “It is a false and sophisticated Christianity without Christ. It cannot save us, for it has lost its power to save. It cannot give us Christ, for it has lost him.” Is that the kind of religion you want?
Indeed, the Pope’s visit threw the spotlight on the Catholic church in the Philippines. But as a result of this self-examination by Filipino Catholics, serious questions have been raised that Catholics world wide need to ask themselves. For if the way and the fruitage are not Christlike, is it really drawing its people to God?—Matt. 7:18-20.