Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Is patriotism hip?

I WAS not in the Philippines during Pinoy People Power in 1986. I received news of it through television and a first-hand account from my brother, who was a law student then and was in the frontlines of the said event. It was impossible to contain one’s emotions.

Many events have happened since those momentous days in February 1986. Is Pinoy People Power still alive? Archbishop Ramon Arguelles of Lipa, who was also in the frontlines of People Power I as rector of San Carlos seminary in Makati, said during the Pwede Pala Pinoy! launch in Cebu last 29 November 2008 that since EDSA I or People Power is a spirit, it will never die. Judging from the experience of the launch, I would concur with the good bishop.

I am no optimist. If mere optimism was the fuel for planning Pwede Pala Pinoy!, I would have given up right from the start. As people more experienced in organizing similar events had pointed out, we were starting out with too little, too late. A month before the launch, funds were still negligible. While we were dreaming big in terms of participants and promotions, there were still too many loose ends. The launch could have easily unraveled even before it began; we would have fallen flat on our faces.

Pwede Pala Pinoy! is the telling, sharing, and retelling of largely untold, inspiring stories of faith-impelled work promoting the common good. These stories are about unlikely collaborations with a twist, going beyond well-defined boundaries that often stifle the spirit of unity. One effect of corruption has been a nation characterized by mutual suspicions between individuals and sectors. Such fragmentation can be bridged if people and sectors learn to exchange places. After all, didn’t God start this whole dynamics of exchanging places by sending us his only Son?
While not an optimist neither am I a pessimist. I do not see a half full or a half empty glass. For me, a half full (or empty) glass is really a glass that is waiting to be filled to the brim. This incorrigible hope of mine is a gift from God.

The process leading to the launch—as well as the launch itself—was really an exercise in and a blossoming of hope. It all started out with a desire to communicate a simple message: a good Christian is also a good citizen and a good leader. What better way to communicate this message than asking people who embody these realities to give their testimonies before people?
The motif of the launch is the analogy of the Philippines and a 90-million piece jigsaw puzzle. Each Filipino holds a piece of this puzzle, and we can only see the beautiful big picture if we go out in faith and see how the pieces fit. Sometimes, we see pieces falling into place as if by an unseen Hand, showing us that we are instruments of what God is doing in the life of our nation. It is a continuing journey and each piece is indispensable.

A few days before the launch several banners appeared in public: “Can Anything Good Come out of the PNP?” – “Can One Man and One Family Make a Difference?” – “Can We Go Beyond Traditional Politics?” – “Is People Power Still Alive?” – and “Is There Still Hope for the Country?”

Around 3,000 people representing nearly 60 different groups came for the launch at the Jesuits’ Sacred Heart School at Gen. Maxilom (Cebu City) from 4 to 9 pm, starting with a Mass, then listening to storytellers and interacting with them and with one another. Participants from outside Cebu came, including Dir. Gen. Jesus Verzosa and Chair. Koni de Guzman, and an 8-person group from the Diocese of Cabanatuan.

The festive occasion witnessed the sharing of talents as rock bands, drama guilds, a rondalla, a mini youth orchestra, and other artists entertained with a message, igniting spaces of hope for ordinary citizens.

Many young people sat down for more than four hours. Some police trainees proudly stood in their uniforms. They gave ear to Among Ed Panlilio of Pampanga who shared his efforts at moral and transparent governance. They listened intently as Archbishop Ramon Arguelles mentioned People Power not as an action against someone as it was an event bringing Filipinos together in faith, preventing our disintegration as a nation. The participants showed keen interest at the humble testimonies of three police officers, Ret. PNP CSupt. Samson R. Tucay, PSSupt. Cesar H. Binag, and PSupt. Romy Palgue, who recounted various personal experiences and how their Christian faith enabled them to wear a badge of blessing for others. They were struck by what they heard from Raddy Diola on how a single family can help a public elementary school and its ripple effect on the local community.

After the storytelling, a “Meet and Greet” moment allowed people to get up close to the storytellers. Quite unexpectedly, a swirl of humanity came to life as young people enthusiastically sought to have their pictures taken with the storytellers. The energetic smiles on the youth revealed the release of positive energies. They had found their heroes.
Fittingly, the whole event ended with the mass singing of Nasud Ko (“My Nation”) accompanied by an MTV of the song while the remaining participants raised and waved their hands in unrehearsed unison.

In the gospel for the Second Sunday of Advent, we are told of a voice crying out in the wilderness and how people were attracted to the message of John the Baptist (Mark 1:1-8). Can the storytellers be some sort of modern-day prophets calling on us to prepare the way of the Lord? I would think so.

That night patriotism impelled by Christian faith was hip.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Pwede pala pinoy

RECENTLY two of our volunteers visited a computer school. They were there to talk before five classes about an initiative popularizing heroic Christian citizenship and leadership. Each class averaged 12 to 15 students in their late teens until early 20s.

The team started with the question: “Is there still hope in the country today?” The results were an eye opener. On the average, about a third of the class would not raise their hands either way. Usually only two would be in the affirmative while the rest said “no.” Although the survey laid no claim to being scientific, the results were nevertheless disturbing. They were, after all, young people who are supposed to be brimming with hope. Nor was this the first time we had encountered such phenomenon. Why is this so?

Even more recently, the same two volunteers asked the same question before a different group of around 30 young men of the same age range as the aforementioned group. All but two of them confidently raised their hands when asked if there is still hope in the country. They were college seminarians. Why is this so?

There is an unfolding drama in our country today. It has five acts: Ganito na lang ba tayo? Tama na, sobra na! Kaya natin to! Pwede pala! Masarap pala ang magpakabait at sumama sa mga nagpapakabait.

The first two acts could lead to a quite kind of quiet desperation perhaps manifested by the computer students, who, for whatever reason, may feel they are facing a blank wall and may feel that only by working abroad would they experience hope. The seminarians, somehow, felt hopeful. Is this because of their regular exposure to the transcendent dimensions of life? One would like to think so.

Hope is key to a meaningful human existence. Without it, people cannot do anything substantial and sustained. Remove hope and the present has no meaning, the future cannot be planned. Despair paralyzes. A person in despair does not feel any space for meaningful and productive action. He or she is hemmed in from all sides. There is no breathing space, just a pressing void.
How do we ignite hope? For the Christian, “All serious and upright human conduct is hope in action” (Spe Salvi 35). This explains why all 25 hands of women from a nearby barangay shot up when asked if there is still hope in the country. They were involved in a program called Kuwarta sa Basura and impelled by their faith to work together with others to improve their lot. Solidarity, i.e. a “firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good, i.e., to the good of all and each individual because we are really responsible for all” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis 38), manifests and contributes to hope. “The problems of modern society are too complex and interdependent. They have to be approached through the moral and social virtue of solidarity” (CFC 1194).

But our little hopes need to be united to the great hope. As Benedict XVI puts it: “We need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain” (Spe Salvi 31). Individuals who have connected their little hopes to the God of hope can be living examples that ignite hope in others.

Thomas Friedman, author of the well-known book, The World is Flat, writes about the power of example: “One good example is worth a thousand theories.” Moral theologians have recognized the power of good as well as bad examples. “The bad example may bring about an obscuration of values and norms,” as Piet Schoonenberg wrote. It is not far-fetched to surmise that bad examples of leaders, elders who are supposed to lead by example, contribute to the damping of hope of the aforementioned young people.

The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) is about the risk God takes when He endows human beings with gifts and resources. Those who multiply the gifts by “investing” these in faith are given even more responsibilities and share in God’s intimacy. There is no guarantee, however, that it will always turn out this way. Fear, sloth, and rationalization can lead to unfruitfulness and uninspiring lives. Yet for those who respond positively, their work benefits others, as shown by the succeeding passage in Matthew 25:31-46 (Last Judgment). Such individuals who respond with courage, compassion, and creativity become living examples of hope who ignite hope in others.

There are many sparks of hope in our country today. They are people who, impelled by their Christian faith and their love for country, have crossed borders to work with others for the common good. Their stories need to be told, heard, and retold to as many people as possible. They pass with flying colors the questions Romano Guardini raised in Power and Responsibility: “Does their sense of responsibility affect their public as well as their private lives? Do our rulers (leaders) impress us as a people who know what their duties ultimately involve and who tackle them accordingly? Is every public servant’s measure of power counterbalanced by strength of character, adequate understanding of human existence, and a fitting moral attitude? Has an ethic of power evolved from a real coming to grips with the phenomenon of power?”

One is a simple and honest Protestant PNP colonel who, as a young captain, had worked closely with a barangay captain, a Catholic woman in her late 60s, and their collaboration bore much fruit for the common good. There is also a retired university professor who doggedly promotes scientific methods and a marketing perspective among farmers to improve their lot—and data show the program is succeeding. Another is a middle-class family that has made a difference in the lives of the students of a public elementary school. Still others are elected officials who show that moral and effective leadership is still possible. Talagang masarap pala ang magpakabait! Pwede Pala! Pwede Diay!

On Saturday 29 November 2008, Dilaab will feature these and several other Christian witnesses in Pwede Pala Pinoy at the Sacred Heart School—Jesuits in Cebu City. The event is a story-telling festival, highlighting 4 story themes in a creative and youth-friendly manner. The stories will be told to a large crowd of more than a thousand, with several participants coming outside of Cebu. If there are gatherings featuring certain aspects of the Church’s life, e.g. the Bible, liturgy, etc, why not something on faith-impelled social transformation?
Yes, there is hope!

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Monday, November 10, 2008

God Smiles

It was a MOA signing that was not supposed to happen.

“Sir,” the voice on the other line said to me, “the Chief PNP asks that the MOA signing with Cardinal Vidal be postponed to another time.” I could not believe my ears. The planned signing was long in the making. I knew that a postponement might as well be a cancellation.
Since 2004, I have been a witness to something very beautiful and unexpected that was emerging from a government agency that, sadly, many people associate with corruption. The so-called kotong cop is synonymous with the image of using one’s public position for private gain. But such image is not just the bane of the lowly cop on the beat; even retired generals have made a scene in international airports. Yet, against all odds, a quiet transformation was and is happening.

Four years ago, I was in a quandary with my involvement with advocacy groups promoting faith-impelled social transformation. I did not know whom to trust in the PNP and this was stifling our efforts at networking and collaboration. A break came that year when I was introduced to then Col. Samson Tucay.

The latter was involved with the anti-illegal drugs campaign and we were able to organize a National Consultation on Narcopolitics or the use of profits from illegal drugs to influence and corrupt the pillars of justice. (The staggering profits from illegal drugs can influence elections, but this is another story). Sam’s relatively small stature belies a depth of spirit and commitment that travels the rough but life-giving road of conversion and transformation that can only come from experiencing God’s personal love.

Within the span of a few months, Col. Tucay was promoted general and, by then, had introduced me to members of the CORPS Movement, i.e. Christian Officers Reform the Police Service Movement, composed of both Protestants and Catholics. The glue holding them together is personal knowledge of God’s transforming love. Holding no IDs and rejecting violence and extra constitutional means as a way of changing society, their members begin with self and faith.
I learn much from the CORPS and have become a better priest because of my friendship with them. Let me share two of their initiatives. The first is their mechanism for accountability partners. These are cell groups providing psycho-spiritual and other mutual support in the journey towards integrity. They consider praying a very manly thing to do and encourage or correct one another. “Sir, I am talking with a beautiful woman. Help please,” a married officer once texted his accountability partner. “Do not ask for her cell phone number,” came the reply.
The second was the Values and Leadership School (VLS), a 30-day live-in training for PNP personnel that began September 10, 2004 and ended in 2007. More than 3000 policemen and women went through the training that was characterized by Spartan conditions, leadership by example, involvement by many volunteer groups, very little financial support from government, and a fresh approach of spirituality. No cursing or physical contact was allowed. Whatever the trainees ate, the trainers shared; if trainees woke up at 4 am, the trainers were up earlier. Common prayers were said first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening. Prayers were said before meals.

CORPS members and other PNP volunteers provided the actual training staff while other volunteers mainly from faith-based organizations coming in to provide lectures and testimonies. Changed lives, not to mention reduced waistlines from the daily physical regimen, made the VLS worthwhile and truly inspiring. “I will not shoot him anymore. I will just pray for him,” wrote one graduate. In the words of one officer: “VLS opened the gates for understanding and compassion to cascade to all our brethren in the police who have long been wanting to go back to the Lord.” Yes, indeed, if all that the police receive are curses, how can they be a blessing to others?
Meanwhile, Gen. Tucay took over the helm of the Police National Training Institute (PNTI) making him responsible for at least 4 to 6 thousand trainees at any given time. There he also introduced faith-impelled transformation initiatives including morning and evening devotions. “Daily group prayer was good for us. My companions and I really look forward to praying in the morning now, although I did not expect to be exposed to it in a training facility,” confessed one newly inducted policewoman.

The significance of what these men and women in uniform are doing go beyond the confines of the police force. The latter is certainly the most visible government agency in our daily lives charged to maintain peace and order, public safety and internal security. If the PNP can be transformed from within, other agencies and sectors can be transformed. Perhaps this work of transformation coincides with what some bishops have recently said: “The time to start radical reforms is now. The time for moral regeneration is now. The time to conquer complacency, cynicism and apathy and to prove that we have matured from our political disappointments is now. The time to prepare for a new government is now.”

Time was ticking. Someone else from the office of Gen. Verzosa called me. “Fr. Melo, it is a go.” My spirit perked up. “But someone from your office said it would be postponed,” I countered. “He is going there right now,” was the calm reply. We were setting the signing 30 minutes earlier. Meanwhile, the official MOA was in the hands of someone who had been given wrong information regarding the venue. Etc…
To shorten a long story, a MOA was signed last 30 November 2008 between the PNP, the Archdiocese of Cebu, and Dilaab Foundation Inc. It features a 7-day version of the VLS to be piloted in Cebu and a follow-up program bringing together Pulis/Pari, Precinto/Parokya through the instrumentality of lectio divina. Dilaab will work with partner local churches to sustain the fruits of integral transformation.

Yes, God indeed smiles.
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Monday, October 27, 2008

An anonymous Christian citizen

RECENTLY, inside a plane, I had a glimpse of a person’s soul. The glimpse was unintended. My seat was next to the aisle and to my left were two other seats near the window. Seated were two men who actually had just met. I closed my eyes to catch some sleep.

Before long, the two were having an animated conversation, although one did most of the talking. He was gushing unabashedly about the physical allure of the stewardesses. He then confessed to having only recently gotten married. Meanwhile, his conversation partner mentioned that he was working with an NGO. This prompted him to say how he hopes one day to reach out to the voiceless as a lawyer since he was taking up law. He also said that he gives financial help to the Missionaries of Charity, preferring them to a parish since he sees where the money goes.
The man remembered minute details of people, places, and events. I marveled at how God had delivered him from harm. “A week before the MV Princess of the Sea went down,” he said, “I was on it. I had taken the vessel so many times before that I knew many of the workers on it. I could have been on it.”

I continued closing my eyes while praying for this anonymous soul and his journey. I saw his aspirations and struggles. Both gifted and flawed, aspiring to do good yet driven by lower instincts, he had dreams that refused to die yet was coming to grips with his mortality. Baptized a Catholic, he was uncomfortable with what he judged as a lack of transparency in his parish.
For me, the ambivalent poles in the life of this unknown person represent the great challenge of formation of conscience. Conscience, which is “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man (where) he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths,” must be approached with the greatest sensitivity and even awe. We are treading, after all, on holy ground. This secret core, as one bishop puts it, is “the greatest untapped resource of the Church.”

How can we journey with such souls and strengthen the voice within commanding them to “do good and avoid evil” in a society that has all but canonized the so-called “lesser evil”? What questions and truths need to be shared so that their goodness may shine even more? How can the goodness inherent and latent in their persons be activated and channeled amidst their own doubts and brokenness? How can we form consciences that are sensitive to social issues and not just their individual relationship with God? How can we as Church become a more credible formator of conscience?

The challenges are enormous. Less than one out of every ten adult Catholics has had adult catechism. Globalization and the media are a mixed blessing. While contributing to a world without borders now described as “flat,” these often espouse relativism and permissiveness, making moral absolutes and even faith look out of touch with reality.
Yet formation of conscience is a duty and within the competence of the Church. The gospel readings of the last two Sundays of October deal with this competence and lay the groundwork for the Church’s engagement in public life.

When Jesus’ opponents seek to trap him, he tells them to “give to Caesar, the things that are Caesar’s and to God, the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). He reminds his listeners of their debt to both the Roman emperor and to God. The way the imperative is constructed in v. 21 shows that while one has obligations to the State, this obligation is relative to one’s greater obligations to God. The two authorities are unequal. Cesar is not on the same level as God. Even the syntactical arrangement of v. 21 shows this since what is usual in Jewish argumentation is to start with the lesser to the greater, the lesser being “Cesar” and the greater being “God.”
For Matthew God is the greatest reality: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” (Mat 6:33). Hence, “when those demands are not at odds (as here), obligations to both can be met (cf. Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:17). In cases of conflict, however, it is manifest which authority requires allegiance.” After all, Jesus himself says that no one can serve two masters who are at odds with each other (Mat 6:24).

The “things of God” include the primacy of conscience. Formation of correct conscience demands that the inner voice of God be obeyed vis-à-vis the Word of God and the teachings of the Church. The proposed reproductive health bill makes a mockery of conscience and imposes a secularist mindset. The “things of Caesar” seek to dominate the “things of God.”

A few verses later, in Mat 22: 34-40, there is convergence between the “things of Caesar” with the “things of God” when Jesus connects love of God with love of neighbor. The two commandments, from Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18, form a single whole. Matthew’s community has an expanded view of “neighbor” which goes beyond blood, ethnic, or even religious ties (Mat 5: 43). Anyone in need is neighbor: “Whatever you did for one of my least brothers, you did it for me” (Mat 25:40). This is echoed in 1 John 4:20: “One who has no love for the brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen.”

This constitutes a biblical basis for heroic Christian citizenship and leadership since acts of good citizenship and leadership can express one’s love of God and love of neighbor. By segregating garbage, falling and staying in line, coming on time, to give but three examples, we are actually loving God and neighbor. We are being good stewards of our God-given resources and being considerate to others.

This is a message that needs to be told more loudly. I suspect the anonymous Filipino on the plane would appreciate it.
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Monday, October 13, 2008

Driving to Heaven

“I AM really relearning the joys of driving,” my friend Alex said to me while maneuvering the steering wheel of his vehicle. His face evidenced joy. “Why?” I curiously countered.
“When you drive you adjust to all kinds of people. You learn to be a good citizen,” was Alex’s quick answer. As I listened to him explain his rediscovered joy, I realized that for him the arduous task of driving on Filipino roads has become a sort of school for the virtues. “Why,” I mused to myself, “driving then can make one holy.”

Our van was now meandering on a steep climb up the crest of a hill. The engine then made what sounded like a sigh of relief as we found ourselves once more on level ground. Then Alex made a sudden stop.

“What is it Alex?” I asked. “Si Manang naglalakad,” he said as he pointed with his nose to a stooped figure several yards behind us. Putting the van on reverse, he moved slowly towards the old woman who was carrying a wooden staff taller than herself. “Saan po kayo pupunta?” Alex asked. “Sa San Isidro po,” the woman responded. By this time Alex was out helping the woman climb up the van.

The first time I heard about Atty. Alexander Lacson was in 2006 when the late Max Soliven featured him in his column. Max was narrating how one day, as his car had conked out on a busy Metro Manila street, a stranger had stopped by to offer help. Visibly touched by this act of bringing him to his destination, he asked for the man’s name. It turned out to be Alex. This Filipino stops regardless of one’s station in life.

In 2001, Alex and his wife, Pia, were thinking of leaving the Philippines for abroad. They agreed that if the country will progress in 20 years, they would stay put. If not, they would leave. Then they realized that if they would only do something today, there would be change. After all, change starts with oneself. Wasn’t it Plutarch who said: “What we achieve inwardly will change outward reality?”

Atty. Lacson did just that when he wrote the book, Twelve Little Things Every Filipino Can Do to Help Our Country. The book identifies 12 doable actions that when done habitually and in solidarity with others can contribute significantly to nation building. It has since become a best seller with its author having given talks to more than 500 different groups in a period of two years. That’s nearly one talk every day.

When Alex was writing his book, there emerged, in another part of the country, several initiatives that eventually became advocacy groups. One reached out to OFWs and their families; another sought to do something about illegal drugs and the use of drug profits to influence the pillars of justice (i.e. narcopolitics); and a third promoted graft and corruption intolerance. The three has since been consolidated into Dilaab (“conflagration,” “passion,” or “tongues of fire” from Dila and Alab). Three children gave birth to a mother.

Advocacy groups are not easy to “sell” especially to people in the pews. Suspicions lurk as to the ideological underpinnings of such endeavors. Advocacy work, they feel, betrays an activism incompatible with faith. Many feel the risks are just too great. Why stick one’s neck out? Why be confrontational? Why not just try to be honest even if others are not honest?

The challenge of a Church response for social transformation becomes apparent when we read The Catechism for Filipino Catholics, 1193: “Since we Filipino Catholics constitute the great majority of our nation, we hold the primary responsibility for building a just Philippine society.” If rampant graft and corruption is any indication, this responsibility is yet to be carried out to the full. Perhaps there is need not only to be good, but also to try to influence others to be good and to be with others who want to be good. We need to take sides.

Through the modern wonders of technology and networking, I was able to connect with Alex. Soon our paths converged. Nearly two years ago, Dilaab launched its Heroic Christian Citizenship and Leadership Program (HCCLP). The message is simple: “A good Christian should be a good citizen and a good leader.” Acts of good citizenship and leadership, when done through the eyes of faith, can bring us to heaven.

Or, one might even say, these acts give a glimpse of heaven on earth. Matthew 22:1-14, the gospel reading for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, has a peculiar detail: a man who was not dressed up for the wedding festival of the king’s son is kicked out of the assembly. Some say the garment may have been issued by the host himself and especially made for the occasion. It was worn over the guest’s regular clothing. Whatever the cultural realities, the garment became requisite for participation in the feast. Matthew’s penchant for “righteousness” (this appears 7x while used only 3x in all the other gospels) has led some scholars to identify this garment with deeds of righteousness.

The biblical concept of “righteousness” refers to the state of being in the right, i.e. of being vindicated in the eyes of God. It has to do with being in right relationship with God and with others. Perhaps this starts with the heart being in the right place (cor-recto?). When such godly order of relationship exists, we get a glimpse of heaven here on earth. When acts of good citizenship are impelled by faith, there result deeds of righteousness.

Good citizenship expands our notion of family. The daily chaos in our streets—where I often feel like an endangered specie as a pedestrian—speaks of a predatory mentality that results when one’s notion of family remains constricted. I have often asked myself: “What if each driver would imagine pedestrians trying to cross pedestrian lanes as their mothers or family members, wouldn’t they be more considerate?”

My friend Alex thinks so.
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