Not by bread alone (Cf. Matthew 4,4a)
Encountering Christ, the Word of Life, Provider and Shepherd of the Hungry and Desolate
To the People of God in the Archdiocese of Zamboanga:
Not by bread alone: “El gente hinde ta viví solamente na pan, sino na cada palabra que estaba mismo na boca del Dios” (cf. Mateo 4, 4). To live in the word of God, on every word that comes forth from Him. I write this pastoral letter that, amidst the perils of this pandemic period, we may strive to seek the Christ who comes as the Word made Flesh, el Palabra quien ya queda gente, the Word that gives and restores life in its fullness. Specifically, we reflect on the Christ who encounters the truth of His identity as the Redeemer of humankind, tested precariously in the wilderness by the deceiving, untruthful adversary of both God and humanity (cf. Mt 4, 1-11)—taking upon himself, as it were, our deep struggles with the present COVID-19 pandemic crisis as our own “wilderness moment” of trial and testing. Through this crisis, Jesus shares with us what it means to be hungry, isolated, vulnerable. As in Christ’s temptation, the devil too presents attractive alternatives to our Christian mission and purpose: the lure of power, invulnerability, and influence to easily bring our notions of God’s Kingdom upon this mortal world – to save humanity from its self-destructive tendencies by choosing the most convenient and gainful promise of domination over a great many. But the stones shall not be turned into bread. It is not easy food or sustenance or one’s illusion of control and invulnerability that a hungry people need. Rather, those who hunger must turn to the life-giving word that comes forth from the wisdom, compassion, and integrity of Christ.
The ongoing threat of COVID-19 continues to derail the normalcy of day to day living in the city, putting at risk those who are most vulnerable in their health conditions. As a community we are still traversing on the verge of the unknown and most uncertain, while we precariously hold on to our emotional stability and the assurance that we are not left helpless in these present circumstances. Nevertheless, we are still greatly blessed here in Zamboanga City that there are people who live not by bread alone, the food that easily perishes, but by the food that lasts for eternity—the “eternal food” of selfless service and witnessing to the call of communion and solidarity with those who can be left behind and struggle most amidst this crisis. In his 2020 Apostolic Letter Patris Corde (On the Sesquicentenary of Saint Joseph as the Church’s Patron), Pope Francis purposely acknowledges those at the forefront of committed service that despite their being overlooked and undercompensated even, “yet in these very days [they] are surely shaping the decisive events of our history. Doctors, nurses, storekeepers and supermarket workers, cleaning personnel, caregivers, transport workers, men and women working to provide essential services and public safety, volunteers, priests, men and women religious, and so very many others. They understood that no one is saved alone.” He also mentions parents and family members, elders who carry the burden of stabilizing their households in the delicate balancing of adaptiveness, patience, and spiritual fortitude—made especially on behalf of the children. Indeed, we can all become “missionaries” in our own city as we live our life modeled on that of Jesus—not by bread alone but by the primacy of the word of God. It is through his word that we are encouraged, inspired to be selfless, engaged with the needs of our brethren, and truly compassionate in encountering the sufferings of society as a whole.
The pandemic however has also exposed the frailty of our human condition, our struggle to survive amidst the challenges and limitations of this New Normal living—even testing the boundaries of our moral fiber. At a time when we become desperate due to the depletion of material resources, the attitude of living by bread alone may have led us to abandon our ethical principles and the prodding of Christian conscience, becoming extremely exploitative of whatever opportunities that may arise amidst this period of scarcity and hardship in our society. We may have taken advantage of this pandemic in ensuring that our financial, political and economic stability must remain robust while many languish in dire hunger, the fear of losing one’s job, the tragedy of coping with the stressful burdens and constant risks to one’s health and well-being. Among us in the ecclesial sector of Zamboanga, there remains the persistent mandate of proclaiming the Gospel amidst a period of fear and desolation that is most expected especially from the preaching and selfless ministry of our pastors. However, the voice of God and the integrity of His sacred word can be compromised when we give in to the temptation of covetousness and pathological materialism, afflicting even those of us who can be most devoted. The pandemic has revealed that we are not only vulnerable to this biological threat of COVID-19, but also to the contagion of hopelessness, depression, selfishness, the abuse of power, the lack of transparency and accountability, and the preoccupation to personal privileges to the detriment of those who continuously suffer.
The desert experience has subjected Jesus to an extreme examination of his identity, reducing the trappings of his divinity and exaltedness. The pandemic crisis has also subjected us to an examination of the threshold of our charity, whether it would remain consistent or altogether fall apart. Jesus refused to change the stones into bread in the desert, even when tempted to do so, telling the tempter that man cannot indeed live on mere bread alone even amidst one’s desolation. On our part, if we live on bread alone, we live in the hope of having to do everything to acquire this bread, whatever it takes. Let us be reminded instead of the truth of Christian hope—in the words of Pope Benedict XVI—as “that [which] gives us the courage to place ourselves on the side of good even in seemingly hopeless situations” (cf. 2007 Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi, no. 36). To find ourselves on the side of the good demands that we live the commandment of charity. But mere charity that is manipulated as an affection or sentiment, the kind of love that does not involve an authentic encounter or engagement with the other, can also mean living on bread alone—and true charity as it is requires also the demands of justice. At the evening of our lives, the mystic Saint John of the Cross would say, we would be judged in love, in how we have demonstrated love as tempered with justice. And to those who have obsessively consumed and hoarded bread for themselves, those who have taken more than what they can collect, I say to them: return that which is stolen, remit that which needs accounting, in the name of charity and justice.
On the first year of receiving this designation to become a shepherd for the local Church of Zamboanga, as Auxiliary Bishop, and recently, as Apostolic Administrator, I make an appeal to each of you to receive upon your hearts Christ as the word of life, provider and shepherd of us all. It is Christ who remains faithful to us in his truth, compassion, and wisdom amidst this ongoing pandemic crisis in the city and elsewhere. “Señor, con quien pa man came hay anda, si hinde con Uste? Por causa que tallí gayot contigo mismo el maga palabra de vida eterna.” Lord, to whom shall we turn to? You alone have the words of eternal life (cf. Jn 6, 68). As a pilgrim people, we echo these words of Simon Peter in his tender expression of steadfastness to Christ amidst so many setbacks and trials, in the face of rejection from others who had once professed their faith in Him. As a Church, we encounter Christ as the life-giving word from the Eternal Father and the Bread that gives life in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. But the encounter must begin with our personal journey in confronting ourselves to what makes us cling to our raw instincts for personal survival and selfish gain. Whenever we refuse to come out of ourselves, comfortable in the cocoons of our own satisfaction and privilege, Christ cannot come to us—and we cannot come to one another. Our vicious obsession for self-preservation gives us this illusion of contentment and achievement that effectively cuts us off from the rest of struggling, barely-surviving humanity. Only in our willful and sustained encounter with Jesus can we realize what it means to share our lives and give the best of ourselves for others in a similar manner to His willful self-giving for humankind.
This pastoral letter has been written as a fruit of my reflection on the need to encounter Christ in the fullness of his generosity and love especially amidst this ongoing pandemic crisis. For this reason, I am enjoining each of us to also come together to an ecclesial encounter with Christ in his life-giving word and provident watchfulness over His flock. In Matthew’s gospel (cf. Mt. 14, 13-21), the feeding of the multitudes shall come later on in the ministry of Christ, and yet it is preceded by a feeding of his word and teaching, of deeds performed out of compassion and sympathy for the sick and distressed. On our part as a local Church, we participate also in an enthusiastic encounter with the other through following means:
– I am declaring Forty Days of Fasting and Penitence for the Archdiocese of Zamboanga in solidarity with those who suffer readily the effects of the pandemic (to evoke the fasting and time of preparation of Christ in the wilderness), which will begin on the 13th of October, 2021, to the 21st of November (Christ the King Sunday). In order to supplement our faithful for the meaningful reflection on the Days of Fasting and Penitence, a Catechesis on the Days of Fasting and Penitence is to be held on the months preceding these penitential activities. Parishes shall readily make available the Sacrament of Reconciliation for those who wish to engage in a spiritual and moral renewal in this period. Beginning on October 13, 2021, church bells shall be rung in our parishes at 8:00 in the evening, followed by the prayer of the Holy Rosary, to be participated by our clergy and a number of parishioners representing the community. On the closing period of this 40-Day fast, a penitential walk hence shall be held from the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception to the Shrine of Nuestra Señora La Virgen del Pilar, to be participated by the clergy and religious of Zamboanga.
– A program of Catechesis on the Word of God, in anticipation of the Sunday of the Word of God on January 23, 2022 (Third Sunday in Ordinary Time). This inter-parochial catechesis is to be conducted via creative means through social media and online sessions as a way of accompanying our faithful and those who continuously seek refuge in the word of God in these trying times.
– The establishment of “Gifted to Give” Stations in our parishes most especially for the benefit of our poor and destitute members of the community. There will be a continuous distribution of material goods to be organized in our parishes in ensuring that we respond appropriately and care for our brothers and sisters in need.
To this end, I am tasking the newly-established Archdiocesan Pandemic Management Office (APMO) to spearhead these proposed initiatives. The particular activities under the direction of APMO shall be carried out by the respective diocesan apostolates, namely: the Biblical Apostolate, the Catechetical Apostolate, the Social Action Apostolate, and the Liturgical Apostolate.
We implore as an Archdiocese the maternal and dependable intercession of the Blessed Mother, Our Lady of the Pillar, whose initial encounter with the word of God led her to wholeheartedly embrace her vocation as the Mother of the Redeemer and of the redeemed as well. In our personal encounter with Christ in his word, who also shepherds and provides for us during this pandemic, we imitate and honor Mary’s humility and openness to charity and service for others, saying too with her, “Let it be done unto me according to your word” (Lk 1, 38b): Hay manda cumplí con este a según de Tu palabra.
From the Sacred Heart Center, Archbishop’s Residence, R.T. Lim Boulevard, Zamboanga City, on the 24th of August, 2021, the Feast of the blessed Apostle Saint Bartholomew.
Apostolic Administrator of Zamboanga
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