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Church as communion in a deeply divided nation

Church as communion in a deeply divided nation

THE ASEAN chairmanship by the Philippines appears to have particularly boosted the country’s standing among its neighbors and beyond. Its leader had received accolades from his peers and objective observers for a job well done. But the accolades were not without vigorous protests and criticisms from sectors who think ASEAN is not paying enough attention to the tragic plight of the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar, the South China Sea conflict or the human rights issues plaguing its current chair, the Philippines. A divided appraisal of ASEAN seems more telling of the present conditions of the Philippines under the current administration than anything else. Of course, this is not to deny the success of the 50th summit of this body of neighbor countries. Neither is this to say that the high road to cooperation and dialogue is only an illusion.

Granting that the almost unchanging high presidential approval and trust ratings could point to the Filipino public’s desperate grasp at a “last card” (to use Professor Randy David’s term describing the country’s leader) to effect real changes in the country social, economic and political landscape, it is a fact that that public is divided. It is this same public that, as a majority, believes the existence of EJKs despite the regime’s denials. It is this same public that expresses fear that a family member or the respondents themselves could fall victim to the killings. It is no help that the elected leader seldom elects to be self-restraining in his harsh language and decisions against critics, both international and local. On the one hand, there is the same public that clings, if desperately, to its trust and approval of an out-of-box leader; on the other hand, there is the leader himself who does seem to know how to unite his country behind him.

The Church’s actions always proceed from her being. She cannot act against herself. She is the sign and instrument of the intimate union of mankind with God and of the unity of mankind. She cannot be otherwise because, as St. Cyprian had taught, she derives who she is “from the unity of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”. It is a divinely stamped ID with a divine mandatum. And yet, it is also clear how the Church, both the clergy and lay faithful in the Philippines, shares in and mirrors the divisiveness of the country. To put it bluntly, the leader, his allies and his sworn enemies are (mostly) “baptized”; in other words, even admitting the seemingly irreconcilable political, social and economic divide among Filipinos, in the eyes of faith, this deep division in the country is a deep division of a “family of faith”. This makes the situation utterly painful for the Church.

When the chief executive lashes out at his critics, one that is, inevitably and often without a warning, at the receiving end is the Church hierarchy. When the land’s leader identifies them with the Church herself, he is rarely corrected (very clearly the Church is not only its leaders) and even more rarely does he accept corrections. There is an almost palpable weariness among Church leaders whenever the country’s prime leader censures them with both colorful and colorless language. On the other hand, one somewhat senses a quiet sigh of relief when the leader’s tirades are, for a change, directed towards foreign countries or groupings, corrupt government officials, diplomats and protesting drivers or activists. What does one do vis-a-vis a leader who further stabs wounds rather than mend them, creates reasons for withdrawing rather than extending one’s hands to fellow Filipinos with different perspectives and persuasions?

Still, hope may not be totally spineless. The regime’s swift and decisive actions against problematic Caloocan police officers and the transfer to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) of the leadership responsibilities in the anti-drug war from the Philippine National Police, though still unpredictable, is a sign that the country’s leaders are capable of listening. This may bode well for future dialogues.

The Church, many times, has been criticized for being reactionary rather than proactive in her relationship with the present or any regime. When she exercises her prophetic role, at times this leader’s tirades against her seem more prophetic in pointing to her weaknesses rather than to the message she bears. The “wounded healer” is often excoriated by a ruthless leader for being too wounded to heal. It is clearly of a piece with the strategy of silencing critics by means of discrediting them in the public’s eyes. By now it has become the regime’s tired and predictable course of action. Meanwhile the public forgets that it, too, constitutes the Church together with the hierarchy. The Church as Communion is nowhere more visibly wounded than in the world of socio-politico-economic realities her hierarchy comes to grips with together with her lay sons and daughters in view of moral and spiritual norms.

There are basically two approaches Church leaders have recourse to from time to time to re-establish or strengthen Communion. First, there is the John the Baptist approach of openly confronting and condemning violations of the moral and spiritual parameters in society. Second, there is the Good Shepherd approach of looking for the lost sheep in the chief executive and his regime’s forces as well as its critics, trying to lead them back to the sheepfold. Many times Church leaders try the first more often than the second, or are more successful doing the first than the second. Though often difficult, either approach may fail or succeed.

What I find particularly striking in the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke is the approach of the Prodigal Father (for isn’t he the really prodigal one in the way he freely and abundantly dispenses his mercy?) vis-a-vis his “lost son”. After so much waiting, he “humiliates” himself by running towards the “lost” one at the slightest sign of his return, hugs and kisses him back home, gives him back his ring and sets up an exuberant party that kills the “fatted calf” out of sheer joy over his lost son’s return. The humility of the father’s love is certainly for the Church a point to ponder and emulate even as that provides a sharp contrast with the seemingly liberally displayed ego and easily provoked bravado of the regime’s prime persona.

There is just one problem: One sees very little, or no sign, of the “lost son” returning home on the horizon. If at all, the “lost son” appears to be having fun being lost. Will the father, tired and ailing, call on the services of John the Baptist again to wake up his “lost son’s sleeping conscience”? Or will the Prodigal Father become even more prodigal with his patience in “waiting” even more and more for the lost one slowly finding his way back? And will the story not take a twist, with the returning “lost son” eventually proving to be the “elder son” (an implicit reference to the chief executive’s elderly status)? Even the Master himself would applaud such development.

Of course, this is only a dream. But, to every dreamer’s credit, Pope Francis once told us in his 2015 visit that dreams are the stuff of the Kingdom.